Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.

 Notes

 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL; http://orgprints.org/32677/19/Willer-2018-global-data-biofach.pdf; http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.

43 thoughts on “Nitrogen wars

  1. I must protest: How can the include sweet potatoes as energy-rich crops and not mention squash?
    Do we not bleed orange when you gently prick us?

    Protectionism in agriculture might actually become an option sooner than in other fields, simply because in these times of the public wanting to protect – even if it is by an -ism – public opinion harbours warm fuzzy feelings towards having nice people toiling whilst wearing rustic hats and picturesquely beautified landscapes again.
    After all, it’s so horrible what the awful farmers are doing now and it’s not really real business like in the cities, right?
    Historical chance. Betting on stupid.

  2. What can one believe about ‘organics’ or ‘legume cover crops’ or ‘the world will starve without Haber-Bosch’?

    Valter Longo, in his book The Longevity Diet, describes the five research pillars that human health research should be based upon. The are:
    Juventology/ Basic Research: how nutrients affect cellular function, aging, regeneration, etc.
    Epidemiology: Population studies
    Clinical Studies: Labortory interventions with measurable outcomes
    Centenarian Studies: what practices were used by those who succeeded?
    Study of Complex Systems: Building simple models to help understand complex interactions

    Longo cautions that there are lots of snake oil salesmen who have one study done under the auspices of one pillar, which don’t stand up if you take the broader viewpoint. Which is doubtless related to fact that humans are complex systems.

    Soil and its productivity are, likewise, complex systems. Saying that ‘organic agriculture costs us a 20 percent yield decline’ may be a true statement….but also irrelevant unless someone is proposing that the way organically certified crops are grown is the best that can be done.

    For example, when Gabe Brown sent in soil sample to be studied, he also included samples from close neighbors, some of whom farmed conventionally and some of whom farmed organically. There was no significant difference in the soil samples, except that Gabe’s was by far the best. So if ‘conventionally organic farmed’ costs yield and doesn’t generate better results, then it is not the choice for the future of farming. But, maybe, Gabe’s methods do provide a window into the future of farming.

    Here is a short quote from the AcresUSA interview with David Johnson:

    ACRES U.S.A. I didn’t realize that. You’ve said that compost shouldn’t be considered a nutrient source. What do you consider compost to be?

    JOHNSON. That goes to the root of the problem. For so long, in agriculture, we’ve thought that we have to amend the soil in order for anything to grow. That’s a dangerous mindset. Nobody fertilizes the rain forest! Nature does this handily without any nutrients. Rain forests are the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and they do this with biology. When I do the analysis, I find a lot of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in these soils, and in this compost as well, since I don’t abide by that recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio in making compost. If nature has a need for nitrogen there are a lot of organisms that can supply it.

    ACRES U.S.A. That is revolutionary. I hear you suggesting that all the dogma we’ve learned about compost may be incorrect.

    JOHNSON. How we look at soil today is counterproductive. It’s a living system, not a sponge that you put nutrients into so that plants grow. We need to ask the question, what biology do I need, not what fertilizers do I add. Besides free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, I’m also finding phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria. We probably have a 40-year supply of phosphorus from fertilizer in agricultural soils but it’s inaccessible by plants without the right microbes to make it available. I also see microbes that secrete plant growth-promoting hormones. This system is beautifully and exquisitely dynamic in nature. If we can restore it back on our farmlands and rangelands, there’s a lot of potential.

    Elsewhere in the interview, David comments on a composting system physically similar to his bioreactor which aims for speed. Johnson points out that he gets an explosion of bacterial diversity in the second half of his year-long composting method. The diversity yields different results from the ‘fast and furious’. And the bacteria are not the nodule-forming bacteria we see with legumes.

    And another quote:

    JOHNSON. Roland Bunch has been doing this in Africa and South America for 30-odd years. He is seeing that cover crops can bring these soils back. And it’s bringing that biology back that makes it work. But mostly, people consider compost as an amendment that has to be applied in large amounts. What they’re not realizing is that if they allow compost to mature, they can use it as a microbial inoculant. That’s now starting to come to light. Now that I have an improved soil, I’ve gotten an idea of what the biology’s supposed to look like. That’s going be what I’ll be comparing to, but I had to have that first.

    And a look at a sideways slide presentation by Roland. Please note the before and after pictures if you doubt the abilities of restoration agriculture. Also please note that, with a proper choice of companion plants, maize can be grown on the same plot of ground for 40 years.

    In conclusion, the advocates for ever more synthetic nitrogen and other industrialization of farming point to the bad outcomes from conventional farming….whether it be chemical based or organic. But when we look at the basic research, such as David Johnson’s trials and genetic testing, or the clinical outcomes demonstrated by Johnson and the farmers Bunch has worked with in the humid tropics, or the wheat farmers in arid Western Australia, or Gabe Browns corn and grass in North Dakota, we get a completely different idea about what is possible.

    Don Stewart
    PS to Michael
    A female friend of mine was getting ready to publish a book on garden farming and asked me to come up with some sexy image suggestions for the jacket cover. I said that my idea of sexy was a young woman wielding a broad fork. She groaned and said I should keep my ideas to myself.

    Now, several years later, Duluth Trading, a direct marketer of ‘workmen’s clothing’ has issued a catalog full of market gardening kind of women wearing some of their clothing. No broad forks, alas, but progress is always slow.

  3. Chris, interesting post. I agree with Thing #1. I am not a fan of our current livestock production system, but neither am I an expert on it, so it is my personal preference rather than a professional view. I see the studies that say feedlot beef is no worse than grassfed for a mix of indicators and I wonder…
    On thing #2, I am with you until the very end. We should reduce N fertilizer use by making it more efficient, but the twist to ‘as much as possible’ for organic is a jump of logic for me.
    You might be right on thing #3, but you are fighting a strong current there.
    B&B could have said much more about land sparing/sharing, but that was not their focus.
    On the nitrogen future, again, I tend to agree with you on meat production, but even if that changed, I think we are still tied to some synthetic N use. And if our meat production really changed, that would require major changes from organic ag and its use of manure from concentrated livestock production, especially if organic ag expands at the same time. Still, it is all swimming against a powerful current.

  4. If the US reined in some of that $150 billions worth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda),

    Ouch. I’ll get back to you after they get the stitches into the gaping hole in my back.

    This is a very interesting piece from many directions. First off – thanks for the link to Andy McGuire’s blog post. It’s a nice piece in its own right, and you’re right about the debate going on. I need to spend more time on that front. [and having only skimmed so far I do think there’s an elephant being ignored in that room as well]

    Your spreadsheet is also a nice touch… here too I’ve only skimmed, but will quickly offer kudos that soy is included (where one might have skipped soy under the excuse that some consider it an oilseed). Quibbles to come, but I think the main argument is relatively sound.

    Assuming the nurse doesn’t run out of 30 silk (or I don’t run out of blood) I would like to take a turn at the quote above. I will allow you did say “some of”… so the wiggle words are in place. But my own employment… what I personally am ‘tasked’ with… relies pretty heavily on making one particular US food export work in a global market. And it isn’t too difficult (from my chair at least) to suggest this isn’t an imperialistic capital grab by the US. A certain chain of western Pacific Islands – housing a human population density far in excess of it’s own capacity to produce soy has looked to other vistas for procuring this protein rich sustenance. Could this be done closer to home? I suppose. But my point here is that perhaps the single largest commodity within that $150 billion export figure has been sought out by the customer(s) as opposed to pressed upon them as so much cod liver oil as a cure for what ails them.

  5. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation?

    I think you gloss over the real reason with your answer that earlier farmers did it “with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients”. Early farmers returned all the ‘residue’ of their crops to their fields, including that formed after consumption of those crops. Of course that is a practice that is much easier to accomplish when most food consumption is close to a farm field.

    As mechanization slowly reduced the number of farm workers, it became more and more of a logistical challenge to recycle nutrients. Now we just flush them away. No wonder we need more nitrogen.

  6. B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”.

    Obviously not conversant with Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, in which he does a fairly careful comparison of the yields of industrial corn and perennial polyculture, which integrates livestock and wild animals. He finds the two produce similar yields, with an edge to perennial polyculture for the vast array of nutrients produced, versus the fairly simple nutrient mix found in dent corn.

  7. By and large our agriculture system has a huge overproduction. We produce some 5800 kcal per capita and day. This has led to the feeding of grain and soy to chicken, to a lot of waste and overconsumption. Nitrogen fertilizer has been a major driver in this development. I think you can access a graph showing this quite will on this link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ki2e0ivyuekiswv/Gap%20in%20food%20production.jpg?dl=0

    There are several ways to increase yields in agriculture, of which the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are just two. They are admittedly important, but one can increase productivity by deploying more work, other nature resources (e.g. water), by switching crops or taking more crops per year. What is done is mainly determined by economic factors. Very few farms, organic or non-organic, produce at their maximum, but they produce what is optimal given prices of factors of production and output prices.

    Re organic specifically, I wrote about it recently. http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2018/01/yes-we-can-feed-9-billion-with-organic.html

  8. For Those Interested in Peasant Republics

    I recommend reading this article on the Humid Tropics and small farmers. Granted, its not about temperate Europe or North America, but many of the issues are the same or strongly related.:

    http://www.fao.org/ag/ca/ca-publications/restoring_the_soil.pdf

    The author is Roland Bunch, who was cited by David Johnson. (The article has no direct connection to Johnson’s work.) What you get is a pretty detailed prescription for combining cover crops with cash crops, usually by interplanting. Each of pathways has been demonstrated to be sustainable over relatively long time periods.

    Just a couple of notes:
    *Small farmers always relied on the ability of fallows to restore the soil. (Same was true of the Appalachian farmers, which is covered in Ramp Hollow.) But the increase in population has reduced the ecological reserve so that fallows no longer work as a strategy. (Same happened in the Appalachians.) Therefore, it is necessary to work harder now than it was 30 years ago.
    *Farmers who had been using fallows for generations knew what to do. But the relatively recent exponential increases in population and loss of the ecosystem services has not provided enough time for farmers to learn by trial and error. Therefore, science and teaching are essential ingredients in avoiding famine.
    *Small farmers have little money. Therefore, the notion of growing a winter cover to fix nitrogen and other nutrients and then follow that with a cash crop (which is Johnson’s basic method in Las Cruces) is not attractive to them. Instead, Bunch and others have been successful with interplanting cover crops which are also edible in with the cash crop.
    *Small farmers are averse to buying things. Seed saving is important.
    *Eating the cover crop for one’s family is important.

    I think you will find it instructive to examine the specific pathways near the end of the article.

    I would like to add that the attitudes of the small, tropical farmers is not that far off from the small farm I worked on here in the temperate US. While we did grow winter cover crops, we also harvested from both winter and summer covers. I was instrumental in causing our CSA to use, for example, sweet potato leaves as part of our weekly box. And we harvested chickweed to eat ourselves and include in the box in very early spring.

    In short, if one is thinking about a Peasant Republic in the temperate zones, it may make a lot of sense to look at the experiences of small farms in the tropics.

    Don Stewart

  9. Interesting piece. I am not sure that using the example of animal manure as substitute for N inputs is quite correct. The most N rich manures are bird manures like guano (as you mention) due to lack of seperation of urine and faeces in the bird lower gut. Most N is found in the urine. Animal manures are generally low in N (maybe 4%) and higher in potash and phospates depending on proportion of cereals in the diet. Typical synthetic N ferts are 20 – 35%. N-fixing legumes, properly cycled in a rotational system can make available up to 300kg N/ha (typically 150KgN/ha) on average. Therefore N is generally not a limiting plant nutrient in regions where temp is sufficient for sufficent N-fixation and cycling to occur. I would suggest that phosphate is a much bigger limiting factor in years to come. Firstly because it is much less mobile than N and secondly most world reserves are held jointly by China and Morrocco (actually in the contested country of Western Sahara. We are literally digging a hole for ourselves here by relying on mined rock derived phosphates. More likely Phosphate Wars than Nitrogen Wars!

    • Yes, I agree that phosphate wars are probably more to the point than nitrogen ones. By ‘manure’ I guess I was thinking generically of livestock (and human) waste – faeces and urine in livestock bedding etc. But it’s a good point about the different contents.

  10. Thanks for the comments & links. Only time for a few brief responses:

    Michael – orange solidarity is one thing, but according to my sources sweet potatoes have double the calorific density of squash, so I’m afraid the latter didn’t make the cut. Love them to death, though.

    Andy – agreed I’m swimming against a powerful current…but I’d have closed this blog down a long time ago if that dissuaded me. Sometimes currents can change rapidly. Just to clarify, when I say ‘as much organic as possible’ I mean using as much already-available organic sources as possible… On the land sparing point, I guess I’d say that if B&B are going to mention it, then they ought to caveat it better.

    Clem – apologies for the collateral damage of my rapier words. I’ll venture that there are some kinds of food export that are more imperialistic than others, and there’s a need for me to add some nuance to my point there. Hopefully I’ll get around to that in due course. Still, if you’ll forgive me for swapping a rapier for a bludgeon, the fact that there are willing customers in a given country for another country’s products doesn’t mean that the ‘gain from trade’ involved isn’t somebody else’s loss in the importing country…perhaps even including the willing purchaser…as a lot of struggling farmers have found out to their cost down the years…

    Joe – yes, that would be another way to put it…

    Jan – yep, hard to dispute Shepard on the overall nutritional superiority of polycultures over monocultures (though where the perenniality comes in is trickier). I do, however, dispute his claims about respective calorific yields which I don’t think are careful enough, as I argued here: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2015/04/restoration-agriculture-part-ii-annual-monocultures-out-calorie-perennial-polycultures/

    Gunnar – thanks for that. Yep, a more critical focus on the economic factors impelling the nitrogen economy would have helped B&B … it’s kind of there in outline with Brazeau, but I think he rather ducks the implications.

    Perhaps a more nuanced take on the role of organic agriculture? – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-01410-w

    • Nuanced, but missing a key ingredient of the nutrient cycle. From the article, “food and human waste is not used as fertilizer in the model, nor widespread in reality. This leads to a corresponding reduction of N-availability in the organic system, which is only partly offset by increased biological fixation”.

      The amazing thing to me is that they found that organic agriculture could potentially feed the world, with some adjustment as to how much is fed to animals, but the model didn’t return any nitrogen from human urine, which in itself has enough nitrogen to supply that part of the fertilizer mix needed to grow sufficient calories for human use.

      No materials taken from a farm field leave the planet. They all end up somewhere on earth. If they could all be returned to the field from which they were taken, no additional fertilizer would ever be needed.

  11. Well that exchange w/Andrew McGuire just completely turned me off of Gabe Brown, not that I was that into him. Sweet Jesus, man, get a grip! I actually feel sorry for his cattle!

    • Why would his cattle not be fine?
      He’s just a farmer who, like many regenerative ag people, thinks that as inventors of perpetual motion they’re allowed to leave out a few details of the process.

      And they are, if all they claimed to do was to have wonderful soil structure, happy animals, good crops and very little erosion.

      They are if they start measuring things neither they nor the universities can adaequately explain and then demand they simply be believed.
      If they want to serve as a cult.

      They are if they call people stupid who don’t do as they do.
      If they don’t follow that up by saying that theirs is the way nature intended agriculture to be.
      They are a lot better than their disc-ploughing neighbours. And that’s it.

      Everything else is political, and they have little to say about the future political geography of farming, save for the occasional bout of ultra-liberalism.

      • It’s why I recommended watching all the Zietsman & Elizondo btw. They don’t do perpetual motion; all the input questions come up, and they don’t just answer them by saying “do X and you should be fine”, they have an expert there to do the calculations and explain how much of what you do, and why you do it.

          • Do you know if they cover just grazing, or are there annual crops incorporated in the system? Grazing perennials is a good way to improve soils, but I am more interested in those grazing systems that also employ annual crops. (I know I could just watch the videos, but am trying to save time)

          • Andrew, the workshop is focused on raising cattle on perennial pasture.
            But you’re right: Intercropping is a practice I’d like to see documented visually beyond Martin Wolfe’s, that one plot in southern France and a few of the US “dual monocultures” agroforestry inevitably seems to be turned into once university research stations get their hands on the concept.
            Wolfe’s plots are different, but what does that say about the state of things when he’s the only one in the West doing on-site research on biodiversity in both annual and perennial crops?

      • Hi Michael, You’re right, I’m jumping to conclusions, maybe he’s a much better communicator with his cattle than he is with Andrew McGuire. Hope so.

      • And for mine it’s another example of the X-Files/Mulder/’Want to believe” syndrome that IMO impedes exploring replicable, effective sustainability solutions. Once folks get emotionally involved in an approach, method, technique etc you get people arguing from belief instead of evidence. I’ve seen this across a wide range of human endeavour. It’s common in alt.agriculture, economics, banking, alt.energy, the doomer and gloomer cohort, the techno-optimists and a further depressingly wide range. A widely applicable bullshit index measurement template accessible to non-technical folks would be useful. These two soil scientists have had a crack for their area:

        https://onpasture.com/2016/02/01/two-soil-improvement-practices-should-you-spend-your-money/

        https://michaelshermer.com/2009/06/baloney-detection-kit/

        I think Andy has been extremely tolerant to some of the invective, vituperation and plain stupidity displayed in the comments on his piece. And Chris is also displaying remarkable tolerance at times on this blog.

          • Proposed solutions that appear on face-value to be win-win with little need to change status quo are understandably popular. But generally need to be closely examined in my experience 🙂

            What’s happening with renewables at the moment is fascinating IMO. This is a once in a century paradigm shift in a major industry. The potential for wealth transfer and new economic structures is quite remarkable. This nexus between technology and social/economic structure is key IMO to better sustainability outcomes. Generally speaking existing interests set much of this agenda because they have the political clout, organisation and money to steer the debate and outcomes. But every now and then something Kuhnian pops up with all sorts of interesting outcomes.

          • Thanks for that. Interesting debate, I’ll try to post something on trade-offs and paradigm shifts in my next post…a bit short of time just now.

  12. Andrew McGuire
    So far as I can tell by skimming McGuire, he seems to be missing the microbe connection and the liquid carbon pathway connection…both of which are crucial to anything I would define as ‘regerative’ agriculture or forestry.

    Liquid carbon first. It is obvious to anyone who does it for very long that trying to use aboveground biomass, including manure, coupled with either tillage or no till, does not do much for non-labile carbon. Liquid carbon is really Christine Jones story for the last couple of decades. One has to let the photosynthesizing plant put carbon into the soil to feed the microbes. There are any number of ways to stop that process. For example, adding phosphate will stop it. Repeated deep tillage will destroy the fungal networks and severely hamper it. Glyphosate will stop it. David Johnson’s innovation is to look carefully at the relationship between the composition of the microbes and how that composition might be managed, and also how above ground management impacts the microbes. Johnson says that his system is ‘2 percent inoculation and 98 percent management’.

    In my opinion, bringing ‘certified organic’ into the discussion merely obscures the issues. If a farmer needs to use a herbicide in order to deal with some nasty perennial weeds, then the best bet is to do it and set about restoring the microbes in the treated area. If, in the temperate zone, plants can get a jump-start in early spring with the application of a small amount of synthetic nitrogen, then do it if the increased yields pays for the nitrogen. In other words, its not an exercise in religion.

    As to McGuire’s objections about typical market gardening crops. Many of these either require disturbance (e.g., digging the potatoes) or else do not form mycorrhizal associations under normal circumstances. It is very clear that these crops do very well in the types of soil which can be created by regenerative farming as defined above. There seem to be two ways to get that soil:
    *Use purchased compost, as the Singing Frogs farm purchases compost. The article on the tropics by Roland Burch is mostly about edible cover crops interplanted with cash crops, but he comments that very small farmers growing vegetables are usually better off buying compost….which is what Singing Frogs is and does.
    *Crop rotation. That is, segregate fields between the mycorrhizal friendly crops and those that are not mycorrhizal friendly. Rotate them.
    *It should be noted that multi-species cover crops do best when there is a mix of grasses, legumes, and brassica. This statement applies to temperate zone cover crops grown in an off-season between cash crops.

    It really is a revolution, which is why David Johnson has so much trouble attracting funding and getting published. And also why the results of mass spectrometry tests of soil nutrients are ignored. People do not want to believe, and they don’t understand how it could be true.

    All this does not mean that Earth can support a hundred billion people in the style to which Mark Zuckerberg has become accustomed. If we subtract fossil fuels, then we are looking at something more like the peasant farmers Roland Burch works with. The peasant farmers would probably survive a sudden collapse of fossil fuels. The urban areas would not.

    Does Regenerative Agriculture have the capability to produce enough food to feed 9 billion people? It all depends on how you define the boundaries. If there are no fossil fuels, it doesn’t matter how much can produced on the farm, because it can’t be transported to the cities. If you are looking at a mature Regenerative System, the land currently under cultivation can probably provide food, fiber, and wood for 9 billion, but it won’t include all the grains produced to feed animals. Can a Regenerative System provide enough biomass to power one of Albert Bates ‘carbon cascades’ and provide a modicum of industrial backbone? Perhaps, but trees are not ‘instant’ crops.

    Final word on Gabe Brown. Gabe’s goal was survival, and then profitability. He has apparently achieved both. Joel Salatin has performed the same trick. That is not to be sneered at. But Gabe asks the rhetorical question: ‘Am I the highest yielding corn farmer in the county? No. Am I the most profitable corn farmer in the county? Yes.’

    It’s also worth noting that Gabe is not ‘certified organic’. When people asked him why (when he visited here), he replied ‘why would I want to do that? People come to the ranch and they look and they like what they see. I get a premium price because of that. What could I gain with an organic label?’ Again, I see ‘organic’ as being mostly a marketing tool, which has been corporatized. ‘Organic’ doesn’t tell you what you really need to know.

    Don Stewart

    • Don:
      To Gabe Brown’s assertion that he is the most profitable corn farmer in the county… he might be, but I’m not going to grant such without some closer attention to detail. How much is he spending on cover crop seed? It can easily run to $100 per acre for some of the mixes in play.
      The regenerative approaches merit a closer look. But talk and evidence are still two different things.

    • Don, all I can say is that the first scientists who get this stuff your talking about into a decent peer-reviewed paper are going to be famous.

    • Just to clarify the ‘organic’ issue – generally in the post above I use the word to mean organic, ie. non-synthetic forms of fertility. Occasionally, I use it to mean the process of organic certification. Hopefully these two very different meanings are clear from the context. Like Gabe Brown, I’m not myself certified organic in the second sense, and for much the same reasons (though I guess the certifying authorities would struggle with the herbicides I gather he uses). However, I do only use organic fertility in the first sense on my holding…and I can’t say I worry overmuch about its relation to non-labile carbon. I prefer just to hold off from the odd flight or car trip.

      Following up on Andy’s peer-review point, speaking as someone who’s had papers both accepted and (outrageously) rejected from peer-review journals, I’ve got to say that it’s wise to go easy on the notion that a favoured analyst doesn’t get published because their ideas are so revolutionary. Yeah, maybe that happens once in a blue moon, but in truth if the topic has weight, the data are solid and the inferences sound then they’re going to get it published somewhere or other in the end. So maybe David indeed will become famous and us doubting Thomases will have to, as Gabe says, ‘eat crow’. However, the nature of Gabe’s response to Andy suggests to me that that moment may be some way off…

  13. Relative to Gabe Brown
    David has not looked at the microbial composition of Gabe’s soil. He said he would like to look at it. The lesson he did draw was that once Gabe got the SOM up to 3 percent, the metabolics shifted toward faster carbon sequestration. He also plotted the SOM and the milestones that Gabe implemented on his graph. There was a long flat period with not much increase in SOM. The animal integration seemed to kick the SOM increase into a higher gear.

    This may be related to the fact that the SOM is not accumulating in the gravel that David is using for some of his experiments. In the gravel plots, he is harvesting all of the organic matter and returning nothing to the soil. There may be some nonlinear, poorly understood, factors at work. The gravel plots are producing biomass, but not sequestered carbon.

    Don Stewart

  14. Gabe Brown and Fungicides

    This was some promotional material from Gabe’s visit to our neighborhood in 2017:
    ‘No insecticides or fungicides have been used on the ranch for over a decade, herbicide use has been cut by over 75 percent and no synthetic fertilizer has been used since 2008. Corn yields average 20 percent higher than the county average. ‘

    So what is the big deal about the herbicide use? He’s farming 5,000 acres, not a garden plot. I’m sure he has perennial weeds to deal with.

    Don Stewart

  15. Well, I have no problem myself with him using herbicides – I just suggested that the organic certifiers might, so the antipathy could prove mutual.

    But I’m intrigued by your ‘what’s the big deal?’ response. In the Christine Jones article you linked a while back she says “It’s a no-brainer that something designed to kill things is going to do just that. There are countless living things in soil that we don’t even have names for, let alone an understanding of their role in soil health. It’s nonsense to say biocides don’t damage soil!” …and much of our subsequent discussion on this topic has been about the bad things conventional farmers do that compromise the soil biota. If herbicides aren’t a big deal, then why not a little splash of synthetic fertilizer, some insecticides here and there? It might boost those yields still further…

    I’m starting to wonder if there’s a subculture in the alternative agriculture movement committed to the belief that whatever Gabe Brown does is de facto correct…because he’s Gabe Brown. Judging by the nature of his response to Andy, it looks like Mr Brown may be a member.

    • There may be a subculture, but I believe the dominant culture among practicing farmers is simply that practicality is the bottom line. I think everyone would like to get rid of herbicides completely. But we may simply not be able to do so, financially, on a 5000 acre spread with broadleaf forbs….at this time. As the promotional material says, Gabe has cut his use by 75 percent, and is striving to get rid of the rest. He does not use glyphosate.

      I can’t speak for Gabe, but some farmers will have a stubborn patch of a noxious perennial weed. They spray the particular patch to eliminate the weed. Then they rebuild that patch.

      I don’t see anything evil in such actions. I am certainly not going to be the one to cast the first stone.

      Don Stewart

      • In a small market garden, it is sometimes easiest to use sheet mulching or cover with a tarp to kill everything, including the fungi in the infected area. But the result is the same. The area needs to be rebuilt after the surgery.

        Don Stewart

  16. Since Brown is partly in the grazing camp and partly in the corn camp, it may help to look at the story from the grazing side:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhDq_VBhMWg&frags=wn

    Richard Teague

    First 3 minutes…ecosystem services more valuable than the food produced

    At 7 minutes, look at how cattle distribute themselves in a single paddock. One of the keys to multi paddock rotational grazing is that cows are forced to eat some of the less palatable grasses. Thus avoiding the degradation of the pastures and eventual desertification. (This is the primary means of controlling undesirable forbs. However, sometimes herbicides may be necessary. And I am not absolutely certain anyone knows what to do with pigweed. A genetically engineered goat that ate only pigweed would certainly be helpful.)

    At 18 minutes notice that the multi-paddock, high productivity ranches have the highest fungal to bacterial ratio. Teague’s list of the advantages fungi afford. (My comment. I was listening to a disciple of Elaine Ingham talking about ‘an F:B ratio which needs to be reduced’ at a farm conference about 4 years ago. Later, I was drinking coffee and she came by. I told her that the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that Elaine had gotten it wrong back when she was studying in Colorado. I said I didn’t think one could really have too many fungi. If you look at the data, you see that both David Johnson and Richard Teague’s most productive plots have 4:1 ratios….not the 1:10 ratios common in industrial fields or the 1:1 ratios common in grasslands. And Teague claims early in his talk that the grasslands would be even more productive with some trees, which would likely increase the ratio again.)

    Then notice that even though the multi-paddock ranches have twice the number of cattle, the land is less compacted. In arid and semi-arid climates, its all about water.

    At 23:48 We need to study systems. Reductionist studies have created the problems we have now.

    Don Stewart

  17. “I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit.” That pretty much sums it up in one sentence. So simple and yet infinitely difficult for us children of the machine. Mostly emotionally difficult, rather than technically difficult.
    I was reading an excerpt from Brian Davey’s Credo in which he talks about auto-poesis, or self-making, which I read as a making which is its own justification. I would translate your “self-systemic” from the last post to “auto-poetic” and that would make the literature major and the rancher in me quite happy with each other.

    • Thanks for that Michelle. Must look at Credo, it’s another one in the in tray. I plan to come back to this issue – auto-poesis is another one to throw into the mix.

  18. This will relate to Peasant Republics.

    One of the advantages of being really old is that, instead of chasing college girls, you get to listen to smart people talk. This webinar featuring Patrick Worms is packed with information. I won’t try to regurgitate it here. Just one point which struck me in terms of thinking about a regenerative agriculture for a Peasant’s Republic. Worms presents data that a mixed system of trees and crops is more profitable than either separately. The multiplier as compared to crops alone is usually around 1.3 or 1.4. That 0.3 or 0.4 additional is likely the difference between a profitable farm and a failing farm. Moreover, it is achieved in a way such that the land is steadily increasing in productivity, rather than increasing desertification.

    HOWEVER, it requires more knowledge and more work from the farmer. There are many ways to screw it up. But when everything works, it is considerably more profitable than crops alone. It is also more resilient because it is more diversified, and because it makes the optimum use of sun and water storage in the soil (same point as Teague).

    The other thing that occurred to me was that it ideally involves a very long term plan tended by multiple generations of a family. One of the cycles Patrick describes is 40 years. I have seen Latin American cycles of 100 years. The most stable family structure probably involves:
    *A stable husband/wife team
    *2 children, one of whom will marry and leave, one of whom will marry and bring a spouse to the home place
    *The child and spouse take over management when the old people are around 50 years old. The old people ‘move upstairs’ and help out when needed
    The phrase ‘move upstairs’ comes from an Amish community I used to visit on my bicycle, many years ago. On a Saturday, one would see a bunch of black buggies in front of a house. The old (typically 45 or 50) peoples goods had been sorted into what they intended to take into their retirement and what was now surplus and available for sale. The old couple then ‘moved upstairs’ in the farmhouse and lived with only a fraction of what they had previously owned (which wasn’t much by Palm Beach standards).

    A problem in Appalachia and currently in Africa is that there are half a dozen and more children, so some of them have to move to cities or else the farm gets subdivided until it requires very intensive, and likely destructive, agriculture.

    It also requires that the children believe that life on the farm is good, that more possessions doesn’t equate to more happiness, and that, in general, the grass is not greener in TV Land.

    Don Stewart

    https://vimeo.com/264522227

    Patrick Worms in the key the Senior Science Policy Advisor of the World Agroforestry Centre, based in Nairobi and operating on nearly every continent. With formal training as a molecular geneticist, Patrick has dedicated himself to helping create policies and practices that encourage the development of regenerative agricultures. In this webinar, we go into a global look into agroforestry systems, and why there are the most productive, profitable, and ecologically productive food systems on land.

  19. A Nitrogen question, and a Nutrient Density question, and a ‘natural photosynthesis’ question.
    Some question marks about plant virus RNA in the human gut. Viome, which you can easily find with a search, uses the latest techniques to study the critters in the human gut. Why? They observe that we have more foreign cells than human cells in our body, that only about 1 percent of the body’s gene expression is controlled by human genes while the other 99 percent is controlled by the microbiome. The microbiome is directly linked to weight loss, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and autoimmune diseases. They note that a new diet may work for a while, but then the microbiome gets out of balance because of the change in diet and things go wrong.

    Viome is accumulating a data base. One of the things it shows is that people who present with a low number of virus RNA have poor health in comparison with people who have more virus RNA. What does this mean? My guess is that it simply means that those with more virus RNA are eating more plants, and we all know that eating more plants is a healthy thing to do.

    But the question may go deeper….if I knew of an expert on this topic, I would refer you there. People who have directly studied crops in the field find that the efficiency of photosynthesis changes radically. Very high efficiencies are observed, and very low efficiencies are observed. Sometime, the efficiencies can be only 1 or 2 percent.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o55RGuELglI

    Now let’s make the provisional assumption that highly efficient photosynthesis would tend to work against pathogens such as viruses. And where might we expect low efficiency? I nominate the big vegetable fields in California, whether they are labeled ‘organic’ or ‘conventional’. And do we have any examples of high efficiency? I would nominate David Johnson’s fields.

    IF the Viome research was able to separate the low nutrient pepper from California from the high nutrient pepper grown by Johnson, then the results might be different. We might see this pattern:

    LNC LNH HNC HNH
    1 1 1 1
    2 2 2 4
    3 3 3 8
    4 4 4 16
    (LNC means Low Nutrient Consumption; HNC means High Nutrient Consumption; LNH means Low Nutrient Health; HNH means High Nutrient Health)

    In short, its not because ingesting pathogenic viruses is good for us. We would be a lot better off if we ate the food from the highly productive fields where photosynthesis and plant defenses are working extremely well.

    An additional factor is that Johnson does not use synthetic nitrogen to boost growth. Take a look at this article:
    https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/nph.13369

    ‘Our results suggest that enhanced viral productivity under N enrichment is an indirect consequence of nutrient stimulation to host growth rate’. This is similar to the reasons why growth hormones are dangerous to athletes.

    So….we might hypothesize that plants grown with plenty of water and with a robust network of both bacteria and fungi are likely to be health promoting in a way that Viome’s statistics do not currently capture. One of the perils of Epidemiology.

    Not proof, but, I hope, provocative.
    Don Stewart

  20. Peasants Republics; Regenerative Agriculture; Photosynthetic Efficiency

    There are many obstacles to the establishment of Peasants Republics. Among them are dysfunctional families, and political and social structures. Perhaps even the basic nature of the human mind.

    This won’t deal with those issues. Instead I will focus on the need for Regenerative Agriculture, and one feature of such agriculture which I believe is the sine qua non for Regenerative Agriculture. In the Middle Ages in Europe there was a great agricultural movement from the West to the East. Beginning with Columbus, there was a great movement from Europe and Africa (slaves) to the Americas. Within the Americas, there was a great movement from East to West. In the United States, land was regarded as being essentially an unlimited resource to be exploited, and then move on. The book Farmers of Forty Centuries was the reaction of an intelligent man who understood that the movement to relatively virgin land had come to an end, and we needed to think seriously about sustainable agriculture. With our current state of degraded land globally, we need to think about Regenerative Agriculture. A peasant family needs to be able to use a plot of land so that it can be passed down to future generations indefinitely, and in a better state than it probably is today. Absent such a condition, I don’t see any way for a Peasant Republic to persist.

    We have to think about photosynthesis and plant biological processes if we want to farm Regeneratively, or even Sustainably. I like the lecture:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o55RGuELglI
    Building Soil Organic Matter While Your Crop Is Growing

    The title tells us that we are going to accomplish two goals simultaneously: grow food and also add organic matter to the soil. If we can do this (while avoiding disasters such as erosion), then there is the potential for Regenerative and Sustainable agriculture. It doesn’t tell us, at first glance, whether an industrial society can be supported by such agriculture, or how many city people can be fed by a farmer, but it does give us an entry into thinking about and studying how to get the most out of photosynthesis.

    Kempf identifies a number of actions we can take, and we get some qualitative measures of success and some quantitative measures of success. For example, Kempf identifies a dark green leaf as more efficient at photosynthesis than a light green leaf. He also gives us his list of the five most important nutrients to pay attention to: nitrogen, magnesium, iron, manganese (which is chemically bound by glyphosate), and phosphorus. He also explains the functions of both bacteria and fungi. Both play essential roles, but it is the fungi which put carbon into non-labile structures.

    A farmer looking at a particular piece of land has to consider all sorts of potential limiting factors, and work on them steadily to expand the quantity of photosynthesis on his property. For example, water may be a limiting factor. Or lack of fungi and thus lack of soil structure, water holding capacity, and mineral scavenging capacity. Capricious weather will always be a factor. And so on and so forth, with an endless litany of complaints in ready supply for farmers who gather at the local cafe on rainy days.

    In addition, the farmer needs to pay attention to the apportionment of the fruits of photosynthesis between plant structure, fruiting bodies, feeding microbes, and carbon sequestration through fungi. As humans, we are particularly interested in the fruiting bodies, and so a reductionist view is ‘what are the yields?’ But the reductionist view does not necessarily support a Regenerative or Sustainable farm, and thus may be inconsistent with the survival of a Peasant’s Republic. For example, strip mining the existing soil organic matter will most assuredly result in disaster for such a Peasant’s Republic.

    Furthermore, the apportionment may need to change over time. As David Johnson’s studies have shown, plants in poor soil put more carbon into feeding microbes than the same plants would put in soil richer in fungi. A farmer in North Carolina taking over a worn out tobacco farm and intending to Regenerate it and pass it down indefinitely into the future to succeeding generations needs to work first on restoring soil organic matter.

    As Kempf says, a rule of thumb is that one quarter of the fruits of photosynthesis go into fruiting bodies, and one fourth into below ground carbon. But the fruiting bodies are frequently the last stage of life (for annuals). Thus, a cover crop may need to be killed before the crop makes the seeds which will take a lot of the underground carbon. Or, the farmer may choose to plant a winter cover crop which is killed before it makes seeds in the spring, which is followed by a cash crop which is allowed to fruit. If done successfully, the nutrients (including nitrogen) which are in the slash from the cover crop are used by the cash crop, and the soil organic matter (fixed in place by the fungi) is undisturbed.

    The exact methods used will surely be quite different depending on the farms, and the farmer’s circumstances. A tropical farm is not likely to be the same as a temperate farm, and an old tobacco farm is not likely to be the same as a farm which has been lovingly cared for. A farm in the semi-arid regions will not be like a farm with dependable year-round rainfall.

    It seems to me that we really need a measure of total photosynthesis, both for large areas and ideally for a particular farm or field. The farmer needs, first, to concern himself with maximizing photosynthesis, and secondly, to optimize the distribution of the fruits of the photosynthesis. I know that satellite monitoring is making great strides, but I am not familiar with any handy-dandy devices which measure a fields total year photosynthesis. If anyone knows of such devices, I would like to hear about them. Kempf’s lecture is all about maximizing photosynthesis. But it would be nice if we got feedback from a meter or satellite telling us how successful we are…beyond looking at the color of the leaves or measuring leaf temperatures.

    Don Stewart

  21. A few final thought on Regenerative Agriculture and Regenerative Medicine

    Please make 30 minutes available to watch Helen Messier of the Viome Project talk about microbes and human health:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpoRPvP_Rd4
    Please be alert for the point in her talk where Helen mentions the power of fecal transplants.

    The goal of the Viome project is ‘to eliminate chronic disease’. It proposes to do so by bringing an individual human life into balance with that person’s microbiome. By bringing such alignment, the project is essentially regenerating human health…as opposed to suppressing symptom or applying patches.

    The goal of Regenerative Agriculture is very similar, and (at least in the cases of David Johnson and John Kempf) uses some of the same high leverage mechanisms….the microbes. In fact, the Johnson-Su compost may be thought of as a fecal transplant for degraded farm fields or garden plots. Is there any reason we cannot regrow six feet of additional topsoil on the Great Plains of the United States? And around the world? And if so, how much carbon would that sequester?

    Now, even if the direction is right, there are myriad details to be worked out. I’ll list just a few:
    *Is a fecal transplant for the soil necessary, or will the practice of gradualism using cover crops do the job adequately?
    *Water is a limiting factor in a high photosynthetic efficiency scenario. Do we need earthworks or contour planted trees or just healthy grasslands on slopes? Is shade important on the hottest days so that photosynthesis does not stop?
    *While it is clear from the mass spectrometry data that there are lots of minerals (such as phosphorus) in the soils, it is conceivable we could exhaust them if we enhance productivity and do not recycle. How can that be done? Does it require re-engineering urban areas?

    I won’t go on to list all the questions that occur to me. The important thing is, in my opinion, that the Agricultural Establishment stop fighting the notion of Regeneration using microbes. Just as I think it will be suicidal for the Medical Establishment if it continues to deny the power of Regenerative Medicine.

    I have said all I can say on this subject. So I am signing off.

    Don Stewart

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