The US election: perspectives from an ear of grain

With an important election looming in the USA, let’s talk for a change about politics. But since this is primarily a farming blog, I thought I’d approach it obliquely from the agricultural angle of cereal breeding. It’s obvious when you think about it…

Actually, before we even get to the cereal breeding, we need to take a step back and talk about systems of classification. Because to make any sense of things, people inevitably need to divide up their perceptions of the world, grouping like things together. But our taxonomies can rarely if ever capture the complexity of existence perfectly. Anomalous cases, fuzzy boundaries and alternative reckonings abound.

One way these imperfections manifest is in the distinction between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Take two palaeontologists arguing over some fragments of fossil bone. Professor Lumper thinks the small differences between like bones aren’t enough to justify classifying them as belonging to different species, whereas Professor Splitter takes the opposite view. Their argument is potentially endless and irresolvable – unless there’s some agreed objective standard against which to judge their claims. In the case of evolutionary biology, that standard arguably exists in the possibility of tracing descent from a common ancestor, though that’s not going to help the professors resolve this particular dispute.

The advantage of lumping is that it enables us to see big picture stuff, the broader patterning in the world. But push it too far and it becomes overly simplistic, and ultimately vacuous – and the grounds for the lumping can usually be questioned. The advantage of splitting is that you can grasp the fine-grained detail of things. But push it too far and you get lost in pettifogging specifics that prevent an appreciation of deeper underlying patterns.

I’m a lumper by inclination, and I’ll illustrate it here with reference to my aforementioned themes of grain breeding and politics.

First, the grain breeding. I’ve written critically in the past about efforts to breed high-yielding perennial grain crops in temperate climates. I won’t get deep into the issues but, lumper that I am, I think temperate herbaceous food plants basically fall into two categories: high yielding and short lived, or low yielding and long lived. Responding to my critique of their perennial grain breeding work, the splitters at the Land Institute say that every plant has a unique life history, and using artificial selection techniques they’re confident they can develop crops that will be just as high yielding as our present annual cereal crops, but long lived – and therefore more easily managed and less environmentally destructive in their consequences. I think they’ll most likely turn out to be wrong, because there are hard ecological trade-offs (those objective standards, those deeper underlying patterns) that they’re ignoring, which will forever obstruct a low input, low impact, high output agriculture. But, as I argue in my book (A Small Farm Future, pp.110-4), it doesn’t really matter if they’re wrong. In fact, I think an agriculture of lower yielding perennial grains is positively advantageous. So not only do I think they’re wrong, I hope they’re wrong.

Hold that thought a minute while I turn to the second issue. A few years back as Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign started firing up, various commentators (including me) took to debating whether Trump was a fascist. John Michael Greer wrote around that time that the parallel was absurd:

“Fascism…is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist.”

This, of course, is a classic case of splitism, with an appeal to objective standards thrown into the mix in the idea of ‘looking up’ what fascism was. But for better or worse you can rarely close the book just by ‘looking up’ what something ‘is’ in human affairs, even though more scholarly thinkers than Greer have traversed similar ground. Dylan Riley, for example, has written a lengthy essay excavating with great erudition all the many reasons why early 21st century US politics is completely different from the early 20th century European politics that spawned fascism. He’s absolutely correct in every respect. But, meh, he’s a splitter … and Trump is still a fascist.

Actually, let me qualify that. In the light of those earlier discussions and what we’ve seen of Trump and his administration since, I’d say that Trump himself is not a fascist, or indeed in full possession of any structured political thought. But his administration and the wider Republican party seems largely to have become fascist, at least by the lights of this lumper definition supplied by Primo Levi, who knew a thing or two about the subject:

“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many”1

I concede that the term ‘fascism’ is so widely attached to disparate positions – not least by right-wingers in relation to the left – that it’s in serious danger of succumbing to complete lumpist vacuity (like most political words, in fact). But I think the word, and Levi’s capacious definition, are worth retaining nonetheless to keep in mind the shadowed skeins of thought linking the fascisms of the early 20th century to the fascisms of the early 21st – the common ancestry, if you will.

And so we come to the impending 2020 US election. If Trump is re-elected, then I think I’ll have yet fewer compunctions than I did in 2016 in calling it a vote for fascism. I’ve seen more fully, as I hadn’t yet in 2016, the racism, the self-serving nostalgia, the forced silences, the buttressing of privilege and the naked will to power. In 2016 it was possible to write that liberals were just crying wolf. But it turns out that Trump is a wolf, if only perhaps a mangy outrider of a fiercer pack to come.

But enough has already been written about Trump and fascism. The more interesting question is whether if Biden is elected – as I fervently hope he is – a Democratic administration will also debouch ultimately into fascism. The point I’m making isn’t about the rights or wrongs of the political positions taken by any particular factions or individuals among the Democrats. Rather, it’s a doubt on my part that in a future of climate-induced dislocation, energy and material scarcity, disorderly economic contraction and polarized political mobilization, any regime trying to maintain power in a centralized nation-state, commiting itself to capitalist growth and seeking the assent of the governed will be able to avoid the trappings of fascism in Primo Levi’s sense.

So while perhaps I’m lumping too much here, I think it may prove useful to classify the politics we’re likely to see in the years to come in the ‘west’ or Global North into two kinds: fascist and non-fascist. Unless they change radically, the programmes of most of the mainstream parties currently will probably put them in the former camp (this certainly applies to the paler imitation of US politics going on here in Britain as the main parties increasingly resemble involuted theocracies obsessed with their own internal cosmologies rather than aspiring managers of an ever more unmanageable welfare capitalism).

The story of the non-fascist alternatives is yet to be written. But I don’t think it can be a story of centralized power, plentiful supplies of grain (perennial or otherwise) from breadbasket places like Kansas and cheap low-carbon energy oiling the wheels of locality-busting global commerce. In that sense it seems likely that the hard ecological trade-offs confronted by grain breeders and other architects of the energy supply will shape another hard trade-off that’s emerging in our politics. The story of trying to hold the existing political centre will be a story of fascism, Caesarism, bread and circuses. Whereas the non-fascist story will be one of trying to create livelihoods as convivially as possible, mostly from the local resources – human and non-human – to hand. The splitter in me thinks there could be many different kinds of convivial local society of this sort. The lumper in me thinks that almost all of them will be geared to the basic rhythms of the small mixed farm. And on that note, perhaps I’ll conclude with another line from Primo Levi: if not now, when?

Note

  1. Quoted here. Thanks to Andrew for this excellent reference.

40 thoughts on “The US election: perspectives from an ear of grain

  1. On point, Chris.

    I think your point on the psychology of contraction should be kept at the front of our minds…well, for the rest of our lives. As scarcity grows, people tend to harden into Big-C Conservatism, and its more violent siblings.

  2. “The splitter in me thinks there could be many different kinds of convivial local society…”

    I think there could also be different kinds of fascist outcomes, beyond attempts to hold the existing political centre.

    Chris has estimated that only 7 million workers would be needed for “alternative agriculture” to feed Britain in 2050. (The UK currently has roughly 56 million urban dwellers, and 11 million people in rural areas). This leaves a potentially large class of non-farmers who may have a strong interest in controlling the farmers in some dystopian version of a small farm future.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Yes, I heard there was an election here in the USA.

    I live in that breadbasket, Kansas.
    So I am free to throw my vote away by voting for the person I would actually like to see as president of the country, because everybody knows that Trump will take Kansas no matter what anyone does or thinks.

    Freedom!

    Many of my friends feel free to label Trump a fascist, and I don’t argue with them, except occasionally, as you did, to point out that he doesn’t have the attention span to be much of anything except the center of his own self universe.
    What strikes me as a much more interesting question though, is whether Biden is a similar kind of ersatz figurehead fascist?

    I can’t honestly say whether I have a preference for who gets elected this time. I am taking comfort (as I did in 2016) in being able to say that I didn’t vote for either one of those creeps.

    There are much worse outcomes than a clear-cut victory for either candidate next Tuesday, and I have a feeling that some of those outcomes are likely.

    I was excited by the uncertainty in the election of 2000. I thought it was an opportunity to make the electoral system in the US into something that actually worked slightly democratically. What I saw instead was fear, chicanery, fraud and theft. Interestingly, there was very little violence around the 2000 election.

    It seems like times have changed a bit since then.

    But whatever happens, I don’t see any turn away from the clubby, money-mad industrial militarism of the people who wield power in this country. Isn’t that what people mean when they say “fascist”?

    I only wish more people could appreciate what a great gift Trump has given us. And now, having given it, I would welcome his disappearance.
    But Trump has pulled back the curtain.
    Nobody can claim now that the US is the shining city on the hill.
    The crime and greed is too obvious now, and whenever I make the mistake of talking about politics with my friends, it takes all the patience I can muster to refrain from shrieking that that crime and greed is universal and not the doing of just one of the political parties.

    There is a certain smell of desperation in the air. It feels like the endgame is afoot, or something.

    I keep telling myself that I am sitting in the breadbasket in Kansas, and those coastal people won’t likely be coming here to bother me.
    And how much affect does the federal government have on us at the daily level, anyway?
    Surely we can keep our heads down and muddle through with our friends and neighbors.

    Except for that plague….

    Thanks.

  4. Not that many months ago my reply to the claim that Trump was a fascist was that he lacked the elementary political arms of a fascist regime, an armed movement to do battle for him in the streets. Come 2020 and that element appears in full relief, no, not as organized has Hitler’s or Mussolini’s thugs, but armed and dangerous. And the counter-element, also not evident a year or two ago, an armed opposition confronting them in the streets, has also emerged.

    But the key claim made here is the more important one, I think: “The story of trying to hold the existing political centre will be a story of fascism, Caesarism, bread and circuses. Whereas the non-fascist story will be one of trying to create livelihoods as convivially as possible, mostly from the local resources – human and non-human – to hand.” The first sentence echoes the opinion of economist Robert Heilbruner in An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, first published in 1973 and republished in 1991 with reflections on the collapse of communism: Heilbruner regarded the ecological limits of industrial civilization as the major limiting factor in whatever political system we devised and foresaw the rise of an “eco-fascism” as societies struggled to deal with the crises to come. The book was lost to view almost as soon as it was published, because no one in the environmental movement wanted to go there; but it seems apparent we could very well go there.

    The second part, about the non-fascist path, faces a serious dilemma today: our most likely allies here in the countryside are likely to be fascist-leaning when it comes to national politics — Trump supporters here in the Beknighted States of America. But we need these folks. Some I know are dear friends, good people in most respects, building a local economy alongside us. What happens when things go to hell nationally and armed bands are duking it out in the streets remains to be seen.

  5. You bring up plant breeding, and my mind and heart perk up. The parallels to politics elude me, but I do like the lumping vs splitting discussion, and the importance of tradeoffs.

    Context matters. As I don’t actively work with a perennial species (though perennialism occurs within the genus) I don’t bother myself with the tradeoff between annual and perennial. I do, however, pay very close attention to other biological tradeoffs. Perhaps the most significant tradeoff I encounter within the soybean seed yield context is the allocation of photosynthate to various seed storage components.

    Without getting into finely grained detail (though I’d be only too happy to go there if asked)… there is plenty of relatively important room for trading fixed carbon among the several seed components and the overall total seed mass produced by plants. There is still room for producing more seed from the same level of human investment… and there is also room for producing more of some specific seed component relative to others. One point among many here is that first – it is not ALL about tradeoffs. One can actually breed for increases in yield. Further along the scale – one can genetically modulate what the plant lays down in the seed to suit different market signals (by employing different varieties). If we as humans are seeking more protein from our plant domesticates, we can go there. It may at first cost us something in the oil content of the grain, but in time we can repair that as well. Why bother everyone here with this? I imagine the causes for this optimism might offer a suggestion to our larger concerns.

    Making the comparison of plant breeding with political evolution and public responses to Trumpism vs. a potential Bidenism here in the US seemed fraught to me earlier. But now I think there could be a thread to trace.

    In order to breed plants to yield more or to change the proportions of seed constituents takes a good deal of patience and some level of understanding the nature of the plant under consideration. Wouldn’t the advancement of certain political approaches also ask for such consideration? Building convivial local communities will not happen rapidly, and I serious doubt it will happen by threat, insult, bullying, fiat, or at the point of a weapon. Understanding and appealing to the human heart will likely work much better. And time – a healer of wounds – will be ever necessary.

    Splitters may wallow in minutiae, but at a small and local level this degree of differentiation may be welcome. It might facilitate the move toward a Supersedure State.

    • “In order to breed plants to yield more or to change the proportions of seed constituents takes a good deal of patience and some level of understanding the nature of the plant under consideration. ”
      it also needs a benign climate , no matter how good the seed a hail storm just before harvest screws the yeald , one thing farmers watch more than anything is the weather !

      • I think there is a fundamental disconnect here. New varieties of plants don’t necessarily require anything different from the varieties they’ve been bred to replace. Older genetics must be produced in situations free from hail, hurricane, severe drought and pestilence as well. The requirement for fertility needn’t be a barrier either. There are possibilities for for better nutritional efficiencies – for example, nitrogen use efficiency has been a selection criteria for commercial corn hybrids (and for sorghum hybrids) for more than 30 years.

        There is even evidence that drought actually helped spread the adoption of hybrid corn in the US – see:
        https://tdaynard.com/2019/10/25/a-brief-history-of-the-hybrid-corn-industry/

        There are some breeding strategies that incorporate traits that favor one farming system over another – think GMO herbicide resistance here. But these strategies do not represent the entirety of the possibilities for new and better crops.

        Production of hybrid corn seed back when it was first available to farmers was accomplished on ordinary small farms in ordinary small farm communities. While it can be accomplished anywhere a corn crop can be grown it does require a bit of extra effort and from this small additional effort a new industrial seed sector rose – (cf. the link above). My point here though is there is no ipso facto requirement for industrial involvement in seed procurement. And while most of today’s plant breeders are highly trained and very specialized these elements are not absolutely necessary barriers (though they certainly help).

        In small agrarian communities many centuries ago, before fossil fuels were even possible there were specialists such as coopers and black smiths – specialized trades that enabled small farmers to focus on their individual farm efforts. Hybrid corn seed production requires no more tech than what could have been provided in those times. They too had hail and other significant challenges. But they didn’t sit themselves before a keyboard and gripe about it – as it wouldn’t have made any difference then either.

  6. Thanks, quick responses –

    @Ruben. Yes indeed. A perennial manifestation of self-serving big C conservatism in these circumstances is undeserving poor/bad immigrant narratives which are already going full bore.

    @Steve. Different fascisms – yes, the splitter in me can stretch to that. I’m a bit worried that my 15% figure is assuming too much solid form, but bear in mind that this only works in a society that’s much more widely mobilised around local food production. Another possibility, though, is that the farmers ARE the fascists. Anti-peasant Marxists like Tom Brass have made much of this in relation to early 20th century European fascism … too much, IMO, but it’s necessary to be alive to this issue

    @Eric. Yes, it feels to me like Trump has pulled back the curtain, but apparently not to enough US voters … or perhaps they like what they see behind it. In any case, ‘muddling through with friends and neighbors’ is pretty much what the politics I’m trying to articulate is about…

    @Michael. …which links to your point about fascist-leaning local small farmers. Can the local muddling through defang this tendency? Can small farmer class identification be detached from national conservatism and articulated with a more plural local politics? This may be one way it’s going in the UK in terms of the government’s recent Brexit sellout of farmers, changes in the labour force and growing connection with climate & biodiversity issues. But, as you say, that story is only just beginning…

    @Clem. Might have to come back to the plant-breeding issues in more depth another time. My sense is that you’re saying there can be (small?) trade-off free changes regarding seed traits within a plant species with a given life history, which perhaps remains consistent with my argument that large trade-off free changes in seed allocation among plants with a life history less anxious about seed yield than us is unlikely? One of the connections between agronomy & politics I’m positing – rather along James Scott lines – is an affinity (but not a determinant identity) between abundant cheap grain and centralized, authoritarian government. But your accounting of it is also to the point – appealing to the human heart, exactly so. Aspects of which may encompass real autonomy, and livelihood … while other aspects involve social connection.

    • This may come back to what one considers “large”… In the domestication of maize there isn’t much room to argue against the observation that modern maize is very largely different from its early ancestors (and that any tradeoffs involved are minor by comparison). Similar assertions might be offered for all our most significant domesticated crops. Their yield potential today is incredible compared with what our ancestors were used to.

      For me this raises a couple points to bear in mind. The current levels of grain yield are great, and there is evidence these yields might be increased still more. However, it is not likely the further increases will be on a par with what has already been accomplished with these domesticates. Significant future increases in corn, soy, wheat, and rice yields are likely to come from improvements in soil health, and better practices in locations where optimum yields are not experienced (fixing yield gaps).

      The issue of perennials (ala the Kansas efforts of the Land Institute) can be imagined as a domestication effort underway. Domestication, historically, has always been a long slow process. There are modern tools which may help guide us toward a more rapid pace, but as a near term (next 10-20 years) fix this is not something to hang our hopes on. Having noted this complication though I’m still in favor of the effort. The statistical meme of making “large” increases given the start of a small base is indicated here. And diversity – having more domesticates in our crop “tool box” is a very worthy goal. Understanding very thoroughly what tradeoffs we face and how they are manifest also allows us choices and potential answers as we confront uncertainty in climate and pest evolution. Domestication is also progressing for Miscanthus, and for various members of the Brassicas.

      Technology, for me at least, isn’t something to be feared or ignored. There are examples of poor technological applications. Perhaps too many… but these are applications, human choices… and the choice is the failure, not the tech itself. The Greek story of Daedalus illustrates just how far back into our history our ancestors were aware of failed applications of tech. The impetus for us going forward is to fully appreciate the world, how it works – and to also appreciate our still immature assessment of it. We can still make “large” improvements, but we have to be honest about all the costs and fair about the realized benefits. Tradeoffs are not evil, but their consequences need to be appreciated.

      As for centralized government… very tricky. I’ll defer that for now.

      • No dispute from me that people have bred higher-yielding crops – especially in plants whose life histories predispose them in this direction. But the trade-offs for our biggest successes on this front include more work input, more crop nutrition, more weed competition etc. The dream of the perennial grain movement is a trade-off free agriculture of high yield, low work, low crop nutrition and low environmental impact – and I’m sceptical that’s either feasible or desirable. In principle I’m supportive of people experimenting on many different fronts, but in practice I’m not really supportive of high-yielding grain export agricultures because I think they undermine the pressing need to create renewable local livelihoods. I discuss this, alas too briefly, in Chapter 5 of my book.

        I think we can both agree that technology shouldn’t – indeed can’t – be ignored or rejected outright. And I think we probably agree that the issue is deciding what exactly to do with a technology, if anything. The devil is in the detail of those decisions – especially when there is no single ‘we’ but subsets of people with potentially very different views, some with more power than others to realize them.

        • I’m still a bit quarrelsome over a line in paragraph one, but in very close agreement with paragraph two. Participatory breeding folds well into the notion of subsets of people with potentially very different views. But all subsets, regardless of their histories and/or cultural alliances, remain here on one planet (a superset?) and constrained by the physics, chemistry and biology of this place. A diverse array of domesticates (and ways to employ these same) is something I think serves this panoply of subsets best.

          But the trade-offs for our biggest successes on this front include more work input, more crop nutrition, more weed competition etc
          The difficulty I have here is first the “more work input”. If I have a small farm with a family and some livestock where I’m interested in raising say ten tons of maize per year for all purposes, should I choose an heirloom open pollinated population or a hybrid? The latter can easily produce more than twice the former on fertile soil (with a nod here to the subsets mentioned above… infertile fields might indeed opt for the OP corn). It does require a bit of extra effort to maintain the parent lines and to produce the hybrid, but these are relatively simple garden projects, and not to be accounted against the hybrid in total as the OP must be maintained for seed as well. Thus to achieve a production of ten tons total where the OP would require husbanding twice as many acres (approx. 1.5 acres of hybrid to a bit over 3 acres of OP where hybrid makes 250 bu/A and the OP makes about 100 bu/A)… I’m inclined to think taking care of twice the space is not less effort. The level of fertility needed in this comparison is not trivial, but the same level produces these results. Lower fertility will reduce the yields of both, and the hybrid’s yield shortfall will be greater in absolute bushels than the OP, so in some situations the labor requirement is not so stark. The weed competition can be considered linearly against the number of acres cultivated (though I’d still prefer a hybrid here as its likely more competitive vs an endemic weed population).

          For self pollinated species such as wheat and the leguminous grains there is great benefit from higher yielding germplasm at all levels. You need less land for seedstock production, and for grain production. And there is less material to thresh to separate grain from plant. Fertility remains relevant, but as for the maize example above – it’s not a deal breaker.

          Depending upon how far we retreat from mechanization, say to cutting maize and tying it in shocks for drying and field storage… building half as many shocks for the same output appeals to this agrarian.

        • The OP/hybrid example is interesting. I had more in mind the longer term process of breeding crop plants from wild antecedents.

          But yes, higher hybrid yield is a valuable trait, which may save work – but then, as you point out, it may require more crop nutrition, and this is a labour or energy intensive business. Likewise with pest/disease resistance perhaps. And the production of the hybrids on farm – or if off farm the loss of autonomy to cash-intensive seed purchases, hence all the arguments about the social consequences of the Green Revolution etc.

          The discussion on here not so long ago about John Letts’ continuous no till wheat work is perhaps to the point. I don’t think I’d want to argue there’s some ironclad law of tradeoffs such that whatever benefits are achieved are inevitably cancelled out by equal costs elsewhere, but I think it’s a good idea to keep the costs in the foreground. Often in modern times, the benefits of improvement in one aspect of crop development have accrued to the most highly capitalized farmers who are able to use that advantage to offset the costs and still come out on top. But I’m not sure that’s going to prove the best strategy for most of us long term.

          • I had much of your thought here in mind when I wrote the comment above about the history of corn breeding.

            This comment thread window is tightening up so I’ll pose some questions further below… this particular topic has be brought up before and I’m still trying to understand the difficulties posed by plant breeding efforts.

      • Whenever I consider perennial grain crops – and the idea is attractive – I always come back to the fact that there exist today many excellent starch and oil bearing perennials that fill that grain niche.
        All those Quercus species.

        • But how do you deal with the weeds ? a perenial crop that either sets seed dies then regrows from its own seed every year or one that stays alive thru the winter is still going to have massive weed problems , chemicals are certainly not the answer , that leaves mechanical , someone with a hoe that can tell the difrence between regrowing seed and weeds or the standing plants and weeds , i doubt a scuffler would work . it may work between individual rows but not between individual plants ,

  7. Earlier in this thread above Chris said:

    But yes, higher hybrid yield is a valuable trait, which may save work – but then, as you point out, it may require more crop nutrition, and this is a labour or energy intensive business. Likewise with pest/disease resistance perhaps. And the production of the hybrids on farm – or if off farm the loss of autonomy to cash-intensive seed purchases, hence all the arguments about the social consequences of the Green Revolution etc.

    Corn, the example we’re focused on for the moment, does indeed require N in fair amounts. Rice, wheat, barley, oats, rye… the grasses – all yield more when additional N is available. But their is no absolute requirement for additional N just to raise these crops. If the population needing to be fed can survive on the lower levels of production allowed by lower fertility then extra fertility isn’t necessary. However, when the population exceeds what these crops are capable of without extra fertility, then the trade off is human life. The social consequences of the Green Revolution are first that more humans were fed. Fewer humans starved to death. Wheat and rice varieties that could stand and deliver the benefit of increased fertilizer applications… these varieties slowed the bleeding. Further social developments such as displacements of growers in the fields are consequences indirectly a result of human choices made possible by the adoption of these higher yielding systems (the system of providing more fertilizer along with specialized crops to take advantage). To suggest the system *caused* these social developments is a twist of logic. I suppose it might be argued that without the development of the system there would have been continued mass starvation, the population would have been severely curtailed, and those of us lucky enough to be here to argue the point would have inherited a rosy world full of wine and biscuits.

    To the point of extra fertility being a labor and/or energy intensive business – all I can offer is – so? Getting dressed in the morning is a labor… our very distant ancestors didn’t bother. It would be difficult to survive north of 45 degrees latitude without clothing, so we make the compromise. If you want to raise a cereal crop, you’ll need to provision it. The nub here is that if you manage to provide your field with 100 pounds of extra N and you get an additional 100 bushels of crop while I provide the same and get 130 bushels of crop because I used a better variety… one of us is better off.

    The loss of autonomy argument seems a red herring to me. As mentioned above – the tech is not out of reach of local systems. In today’s society it has migrated away from local. But like the consequences of the Green Revolution, this is due to human choices… not the technology itself.

    Plant (and animal) breeding works extremely well at local levels. The history of hog, sheep, and cattle production on the Island of your birth is laced full of local breed names. Indeed many of the foundational swine, sheep, and beef breeds here in the US trace to names such as Suffolk, Hereford, Hampshire, and on and on. The point I’ll leave off with here is that even though breeding today tends to happen at points quite remote from the local, this isn’t because the technology prevents it being local. Local is actually much better, but because we humans choose to avoid the additional effort we find ourselves arguing about it.

  8. Briefly, on the plant breeding and perennials theme…

    Clem, there’s no argument between us on the need for ongoing crop and livestock breeding, nor on the possibility of it being done locally in many hands.

    Where there possibly is an argument is on three points. First, the Green Revolution, where there are sharply clashing perspectives. On the one hand, the view you articulate that it fed millions who would otherwise have starved. On the other, the view that it didn’t, and may even have exacerbated hunger. In ‘Geopolitics & the Green Revolution’ John Perkins writes that GR policies were aimed at national food security and were “at best only tangentially aimed at alleviating hunger and poverty”. There’s a very long history of yield improvement or increased food production in agriculture presented as generalized social improvement or hunger alleviation on grounds that are flimsy at best (see, for example, the counter-case presented by Robert Allen and Eric Holt-Gimenez in books referenced in my book). I’m not convinced that yield improvement has generally been poverty or hunger alleviating, including in the GR. Usually, the politics of inequality trump the technology of crop improvement.

    Second, regarding yield, fertility and labour here is a trade-off that surely requires more than a ‘so?’ Higher yield = less land to work for a given output = less work. But higher crop nutrition = more fertility to get into the fields = more work. It’s not a given that the less work of the first equation outweighs the more work of the second. There’s a lot more to say about how these equations are transformed by human time/space, capitalization and state politics. But in brief I think it’s more than a ‘so’…

    Third, while I agree that the technology of crop development doesn’t prevent it being local, the technography of it often has in recent years – in other words, the political/institutional structures within which the technology is potentiated. And IMO this isn’t a trivial point.

    To Eric’s point, I’d certainly be interested to read some speculations about what a shift to a more perennial agriculture based on Quercus might look like. I think probably one less susceptible to the perils of grain agriculture that I fear. But I’m not going to speculate further right now…

    To Diogenese, I guess the perennial grain/edible prairie folks would say that a mixed sward of grains, legumes and other forbs would be adequately weed-suppressing year to year. Whether they’re right – and whether it would simultaneously be adequately food-producing – is a matter on which I can’t comment, but I have my suspicions. And it would surely vary from place to place. But if John Letts’s annual grain system proves generalizable, then maybe we’re pretty much set.

    • You make my case for me… Usually, the politics of inequality trump the technology of crop improvement.

      Politics are human choices… the ability to improve yields from like levels of input is not the problem… or even the source thereof. I’ll have a look at the references in your book, but outcomes based on policies (Perkins) are still not sufficient to besmirch the real opportunities potentiated by better performance of our domesticates.

      It’s not a given that the less work of the first equation outweighs the more work of the second
      In a common garden experiment – all inputs are the same – one can reliably show time and again that some varieties are more productive than others. Further, one can take advantage of the disparities between varieties to breed for even better yields in the future in precisely the sort of production system under consideration. This is not magic, it is the result of transgressive segregation. In your example you are (I believe) assuming that there is some disproportionate amount of work involved in providing for the fertility. I’m not asking for any different level of effort. If fertility is low, some varieties will still prove better than others. At higher levels of fertility the choice for best variety might change, but there are still differences that can be employed to one’s advantage.

      A different perspective – bringing onboard a human outlook – the idea that a producer really doesn’t care if s/he is making the best use of time, material and effort. The producer may have other matters before her – time constraints for example But in this perspective we are back to the choices humans make and no longer making honest (comparable) judgements about the value of crop improvement.

      Here’s hoping that explanation is more robust that a ‘so’.

      • I’m not sure what we’re arguing about.

        Assuming a given fertility input, can a given variety always be more productive (and more productive of what, exactly?) in the face of all combinations of weather conditions, soil conditions, weed competition, pest and disease attack etc.? Surely not – the farmer and plant breeder are constantly juggling a complex, uncertain, ever-changing and surely sometimes contradictory (ie. trade-off prone) set of criteria which are unlikely to be perfectly met.

        So selecting for productivity is complex – and the resolution of that complex choice will inevitably be made through human (ie. political) lenses. Yes, people will rightly always be looking for crop improvement, and if you control all the independent variables some crop varieties will always perform better in that specific situation than others. I don’t think we’re in disagreement there. So yes if you control all other variables then you can get trade-off free yield improvements through selection. And if you don’t/can’t control all other variables you can’t get trade-off free yield improvements. No contradiction there…

        In a lot of real world situations in recent times the decision has been to increase the per acre yield of certain nutrients by increasing or better controlling water, fertility and pest/disease attack using higher levels of energy and capital input. We can argue about whether that was a good decision. But I don’t think we’re arguing it WAS a decision, and not the only one that could have been made …

    • Well, I am going to state my ignorance to save the trouble of demonstrating it.

      I know only a few facts about acorn agriculture.
      Oaks were the source of the vast majority of staple calories for the whole of pre-conquest California, except for the salmon areas.
      Their main food sources by caloric importance were acorns and deer.

      Acorns can be stored for a long time.
      They are generally not edible without leaching their tannin.
      Crop volumes vary considerably from year to year and tree to tree.
      And there is a non-trivial amount of labor involved in harvesting and processing acorns.
      For instance, it is surprising how long it takes to pick up a bucketful.
      But there is something about acorns’ larger seed size that makes them more amenable to hand processing than wheat, for instance.
      Nobody wants to process wheat by hand.

      I have done acorn harvest labor by hand, and I remain convinced that my wife and I could feed ourselves from the oak trees that the city has planted near our house, so long as the human competition doesn’t get too great.

      That is pretty much all I know about the topic, and what it portends for oak agriculture is doubtless approximately zero.
      But there is a long history between our species and the oaks, and I find it curious that it is so widely ignored.
      A cultural thing, no doubt.

      • On the acorn front, there’s some interesting info here from a commercial acorn farming project involving Quercus ithaburensis (sub. sp. Macrolepis), in Greece. There are implications for the tanning industry too.
        http://www.woodlanders.com/blog/2017/10/30/episode-18-acorn-harvest
        Will Bonsall’s book also has a few pages on acorns as a food source. He details its processing on a family scale in Maine, and mentions that the resultant acorn meal was lab tested to reveal it contained 55 percent carb, 26 percent fat and 7.5 percent protein. High fat content means the flour is prone to rancidity, so milling individual batches as required is the way to go.
        On the hail front, I think it’s worth bearing in mind for anyone who lives beneath a roof, including livestock. The energy, labour, materials and cost involved in replacing roofing material for a whole settlement is considerable; most folk here replaced clay tile with metal, a mistake I believe as even 5cm stones will puncture aluminium guttering, and metal roofing under a steady rain sounds like treble turned up to 11. If you’re renovating, building, designing or thinking of replacing a roof anywhere, the safest long-term bet may be some kind of green/turf roof.

      • Acorns & hail – very interesting.

        On the former, I guess my question is basically whether they can easily be turned into a cheap, easily storable and transportable global export crop. Seems like maybe not, so I’m starting to get interested in Quercus as the possible basis for a more sustainable and nature friendly local perennial agriculture. Wish I’d got more interested sooner tbh … it’s not as if I hadn’t heard of the potential previously. On the upside, we planted lots of oaks 15+ years ago … so the project is already underway. I’ll report back.

        Regarding hail & roofs, here at Vallis Veg we’re big metal roof enthusiasts and can happily report rain noise isn’t too much of a problem (provided the house is insulated … the sheep may have a different view, but they’re not housed long). Hail isn’t too much of a problem here either, and the possibilities for water collection point away from turf roofs. But who knows what new challenges – and trade-offs – climate change may bring.

        • Metal roofing does have advantages, a high runoff coefficient being one of them; given a sturdy enough gauge you’d reasonably expect nothing could even dent it. The thinner (cheapest) stuff, I’m not so sure… Either way, make sure it’s grounded against lightning strikes. (I’m sold on runoff for rainwater collection, but equally on the idea of making all exterior surfaces of an abode amenable to other life, with low embodied energy if possible. Metal does get very hot in the sun (can be utilised, as per Living Energy Farm); as with most architecture, I guess one could always smother it with vines.
          According to the short film I linked to, acorns store very well as dried acorns, not as flour. If planting oaks with this purpose in mind, Bonsall recommends selecting locally for precocity, large and consistent yield, and possibly low tannin. Future generations may thank you… But to speed things up a bit, there’s always chestnuts, which can also be turned into flour that appears to have, if anything, even better nutritional traits.

          • J Russel Smith (see link below) equates acorns to “wheat bread and butter” and chestnuts to corn, in terms of their nutritional characteristics.

            Phil Rutter (see link below) equated hazelnuts and chestnuts to soybeans and corn, in terms of their value as staple crops.

        • I’m glad you’ve finally caught on Chris! I’ve been thinking (and occasionally commenting) “what about tree crops?” ever since you first wrote your articles criticising the Land Institute. Those articles might actually be how I first came across your blog, I’m not sure now.

          The seminal book on tree crops is J. Russel Smith’s “Tree Crops: A permanent Agriculture”, 1929: https://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/01aglibrary/010175.tree%20crops.pdf

          There’s been much written since then, of course. The work of Badgersett Farm in Minnesota was inspiring, though it seems to have come to an end now: https://www.badgersett.com/info. Phil Rutter’s book on growing neo-hybrid hazelnuts is published by Chelsea Green.

          There have been tree-crop based societies in the past, especially in North America, but also in parts of the mediterranean basin. I think one of the things that makes them such interesting models for long-term sustainability is the much-reduced positive feedback loop between crop yields and population size.

        • Well, I don’t mind admitting to often being slow on the uptake … in my defence, I don’t think previously I’ve fundamentally disputed the feasibility of a perennial/tree crop agriculture, but I’ve been sceptical of claims of the Mark Shepard or Land Institute sort that it’s just as or more productive than annual agriculture, but without the downsides. But as a sometime commercial veg grower kind of on a journey towards trying to be a subsistence cultivator and with an antipathy to silver bullet solutionism in alternative ag as well as in its mainstream counterpart, it’s possible I’ve focused overly on the downsides as negatives rather than endorsing their affinity with a local renewable agrarianism.

          In other words, thanks for welcoming me into your club. It’s a pleasure to be here 🙂

    • Around here we have masive pecan orchards thousands of acres of them , perenial yes green certainly not , pesticides are a problem in surface water , diesel consumption per acre is about that of multiple crop hay fields , sweeping under the trees so when the machine shakes the pecans of there is relitavly clean ground for another machine to vaccum them up ,grass is kept short to stop machine fouling , hybrids although they deliver a larger crop are prone to drought problems with up to 20% of the trees lost in a drought year without irrigation plus they are short lived trees needing replacement every 40 years or so , many people burn the shells in winter and are also used as mulch.
      Peach ,apricot and plums are grown on a small scale but the endemic bacterial kanker kills them over a couple of decades so continual replanting is needed , pears seem to have few problems though we are too far south for apples / northern soft fruit and too cold in winter for sub tropical fruits .
      poor acorn crop this year .

      • Just goes to show you can turn almost anything into an industrial disaster zone when you attach it to the global profit-scouring economy. Acorn-based smallholding may be more resistant, if you get the land titling right. Though the cautionary tale in Simon Fairlie’s ‘Meat’ book about what happened when a chestnut-based mountain peasant economy in France met with wheat maybe puts a few question marks around my newfound enthusiasm for a Quercus agro-economy.

        • what do you do with all the tanins washed out of the acorns ? been there done that , it takes a LOT of water to make them edible and the liquor left over will poison near everything .

          • I started Googling into it… pour it on the compost, dilute it for watering were two ‘solutions’ that came up. Maybe a reed bed filtration would cope with it, and judging by how our ducks behave I’d cautiously experiment with pouring it into a duck pond.

          • Tannins are polyphenolic polymers with a high molecular weight and a high number of hydroxyl groups, which enable them to bind different components and make new complexes [1]. Depending on the type of tannin and its chemical structure, the quantity of feeding, and the species of the animals, these components could be detrimental, harmless, or even beneficial to animals [2]. Tannins have beneficial effects for ruminants, such as enhancing protein utilization, preventing bloat, controlling internal parasites, increasing wool growth, and improving the milk fatty acid profile; therefore, there is a growing interest in using tannin-rich feeds in ruminant nutrition.
            From https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229734293_Unravelling_the_conundrum_of_tannins_in_animal_nutrition_and_health

          • “Apparently, tannin poisoning is mainly a problem for animals that can’t roam to find alternate water and food sources, Upham said. For example, dogs and cattle both have been poisoned by drinking water in which oak leaves had soaked for a while.”

            –High Plains Journal, “Horticulturist: ‘Facts’ about acorns, oaks cause confusion”, Jan 16, 2012

            “Oak poisoning is a major problem in the production of livestock in areas where oak occurs… Calcium hydroxide, supplied in a supplemental feed, is an aid in preventing oak poisoning in cattle.”

            –Texas A&M University, “Oak Poisoning in Livestock
            https://oaktrust.library.tamu.edu/bitstream/handle/1969.1/90547/Bull1049a.pdf

  9. So…back from acorns to the mighty oak of US politics. It’s time to move on from this blog post, and as I write it seems likely that Joe Biden might just squeak home into the White House.

    However, the fact that around 70 million people voted for Donald Trump suggests to me that the US is going to have deep ongoing problems of political legitimacy – the road to being what Dave Eggers called “a serious people again” looks long and winding. At the same time, for the reasons outlined above, the fact that Joe Biden may be president scarcely alters the wider prospects for deep ongoing crisis . The supersedure state outlined in my book seems well on its way…

    But lest anyone accuse me of supercilious cross-Atlantic jeering, let me hasten to admit that the outcome of our election here in Britain last year also suggests we aren’t a serious people (or, minimally, that like the US we don’t have a serious electoral system). The difference is that in our case it’s largely ourselves who are going to suffer, whereas US politics has vastly greater global implications.

    • Can’t stop me from smiling today, I’ll take this little moment of joy, or at least relief, however fleeting or illusory it may be. Especially given that, as you point out, there are plentiful dangers and difficulties on the path ahead.
      As many people have pointed out it’s not like this soon-to-be ex-president isn’t a fairly accurate representation of our worst qualities as a nation. It’s really not fair that the rest of the world had to go along with us on our journey into our national lizard brain.

      • Hey, I’m with you Michelle. Despite the gloomy portents in the wider landscape, I can’t help feeling a certain lightness about the result. Looking forward to the posts from the likes of John Michael Greer about how the marginalised voices of people of color, the poor, religious minorities, immigrants, refugees have spoken and must be listened to…

        …but it’ll be interesting to see if the Dems can kick on from the wake up call of the Trump presidency.

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