My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.
Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.
But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.
They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.
There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.
A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.
A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.
Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.
Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.
As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:
What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.
There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.
I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.
And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.
But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.
The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.
First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.
Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.
Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.
BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.
Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.
Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”
Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.
Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.
That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.