What’s in a number?

Chapter 11 of A Small Farm Future is predominantly a number-crunching exercise showing that Britain could feed a population of 83 million people using organic farming methods with locally generated fertility when yields are generally assumed to be 10% lower than the lowest bound of current organic crop yields, and with minimal fossil fuel use on-farm. The kind of analysis I did will be familiar to readers of this blog who followed my posts about feeding the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, but in this case I applied the analysis to the whole country. I didn’t apply it to the whole world, however, and this is where I need your help (see below).

The basic take-home message of the analysis as I see it is that it’s possible for Britain to feed itself even with these stringent assumptions about population, yield and energy. So barring major climate tipping points or socio-political meltdown (both of which are possible, of course), I don’t believe that our food supply problems are ones of basic ecological carrying capacity. This is consistent with various mainstream studies, though not with the narrative that only capital-intensive, hi-tech, output-maximizing agricultures are capable of feeding us. Other organisms, if they’re capable of such thought, might take the view that their food supply problems are one of basic ecological carrying capacity as a result of human encroachment, but that’s another issue that I address elsewhere in the book – and, in passing, below.

I chose the population figure of 83 million – around 17 million more than the present UK population – on the assumption that Britain will be a destination for climate refugees in the near future. I plan to write more on this topic soon, but for now I’ll just underline my previous observation: even with a considerably enlarged population, Britain can feed itself with low impact and low yield methods. At the enlarged population of 83 million, this would involve a land take of 0.4 acres per person, with some slack in the system but with more land than presently devoted to cropping rather than grass. It’s tight. It involves potatoes. But it’s doable.

In the course of my analysis in Chapter 11, I mentioned that the agriculture I was proposing would require something like 15% of the working-age population to work directly as farmers (and more to serve the farm workforce indirectly). This number got picked up by various readers and reviewers and – as generally seems to be the way with bold quantification – prompted a certain amount of comment.

I think 15% is defensible, but to some degree I plucked it from the air on the basis of various assumptions that could be questioned, so I certainly wouldn’t defend it to the hilt. Arguably, the true number might be more. Conceivably, it could be less – though I doubt it. But what are the implications? What’s in a number?

One implication, I think, is that my analysis is sociologically plausible in the grand scheme of things. If it had turned out that the ratio of workers to consumers was close to or greater than one, then I would have had to conclude it’s impossible to feed ourselves with low impact methods, but I don’t believe this to be the case. As I mention on p.161 of my book, the 15% figure would put Britain in the company of countries such as Tunisia, Mexico and Ukraine today. There’s no strict comparability between what’s happening in these countries now and the kind of future scenario I’m describing. I make the comparison really just to suggest that 15% is not some outlandishly implausible figure.

People often point to the low proportion of the British labour force employed in agriculture (around 1%, currently) as if it’s an impressive historical achievement, rather than a source of past and probably future pain. But it does need noting that the true labour force involved in producing the country’s food and fibre is much higher, because we export the responsibility to grow labour-intensive products abroad, or else import from abroad temporary labour in those sectors, and this isn’t captured in the 1% figure. If you throw in all the processing, logistics and retail jobs that exist in the present food system but probably wouldn’t in a more self-reliant small farm future, then the 15% figure might start looking quite run of the mill. Indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post, it’s likely we’ll soon be in a situation where a lot of people will be looking for work to feed themselves at a time when many of the employment sectors that people have come to rely upon in modern society to provide for their needs will be contracting. So a plausible response to my analysis in Chapter 11 might be – “Just 15%? Couldn’t it be more?” The good news is, yes it could.

If 15% of people worked as farmers, that means on average that around one in six adult workers you know would farm, and the majority of families would probably have a personal connection to agriculture. It’s interesting to speculate how that might affect the standing of agriculture in society. One suggestion that’s come my way is that its standing would remain low, and the 15% would be dominated by the other 85%. It’s certainly possible, but I’m not sure it’s a matter of the simple numbers. There have been many societies historically with much higher proportions of people working directly in farming where the social standing and political opportunities of the farmers are low. But an interesting aspect of the epoch of modernity – manifested especially in the politics of populism – has been the idea that as citizens, individuals or humans, we are all of equal standing. It will be interesting to see how that issue plays out in the turbulent politics that are upon us.

One criticism I’ve received concerning this analysis is that showing how Britain can feed itself – even with numbers swelled by climate migration – is all very well, but it doesn’t prove that we can feed ourselves with local low-impact methods worldwide. On page 153 of my book, I give some reasons why the British case may not be wildly unrepresentative of the global one, but the criticism is a reasonable one all the same. I took the view that it was hard enough – and the assumptions were heroic enough – even to do a Britain-wide analysis. Trying to do a worldwide one would have been a step too far.

But maybe I can call on some external help in this regard. Greg Reynolds recently jotted some thoughts here about farm productivity from his US experience, and it looks like Jan Steinman might have some Canadian data up his sleeve. The main spirit of Chapter 11 was not fundamentally about me showing that the world could feed itself sustainably but about inviting people to think about their localities or regions and address their food sustainability for themselves. So … if anybody would care to do that – in whatever way they deem appropriate – I’d be delighted for them to send me their results via the Contact Form. I can’t promise that I will publish them or necessarily do anything with them, but if some sufficiently interesting analyses come my way I will try to make something of it.

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, I’ve received some semi-aggressive feedback along the lines of “It’s absurd for you to think my locality could be food self-reliant. I live in a city/desert”. Aside from noting that interesting final conjunction of words, my first blush response to this has usually been something along the lines of “Well, I’m sorry to hear that but, er … that’s not fundamentally my problem”. Ultimately, though, it is my problem as much as it’s anyone’s, and this is why I built a margin for climate migrants into my modelling for Britain. To be blunt, if your own modelling suggests your present local population couldn’t easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present high numbers. If, on the other hand, your modelling suggests your present local population could easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present low numbers.

A final observation. I’m writing this post on a sunny late May evening in the first spell of dry weather we’ve had after three cold, wet weeks. For two days, all day long and well into the night I’ve heard the distant whine of tractors in neighbouring fields busy playing catchup making silage. When they’re done, I know what the fields will look like – shaved bare as a skinhead’s pate from boundary fence to boundary fence.

When I think about my own site, with its mix of woodland, rather underused grassland, its small extent of heavily cropped gardens, its houses and outbuildings, I’ve sometimes felt guilty that we’re not maxing out the productivity like our neighbours. On the other hand, when you step from those fields into ours, the first thing you notice at this time of year is the sudden birdsong and the buzz of insects. You notice the large number of people living, working or playing on the site. You might notice the large diversity of its products – in addition to the meat and wheat furnished in such quantity by the surrounding fields, there’s wood for building or burning, fruit and nuts, a proliferation of vegetables, and quite a bit of wild food too. We could, if necessary, ramp up the per acre food productivity a little, especially if we brought more people onto the site to live and work. And we could probably do it without compromising too much on the birds and insects. But I don’t feel too guilty because, as I said above, I think Britain can feed itself well with low impact, low energy and low yield methods. The main problems lie elsewhere.

Labour on the farm

The first draft of A Small Farm Future had a chapter called ‘Labour on the farm’ which didn’t make the final version. I needed to cut the length, and although there were parts of this chapter I was quite attached to, I felt I hadn’t nailed the issues as well as I’d like, so it was easy to spike. Some passages found their way into other parts of the book, but I’d been hoping to make good on the issue in this blog cycle with parts of the deleted chapter and my own more polished thoughts. Trouble is, I still don’t feel I’ve nailed this issue sufficiently. So instead I offer this post as a placeholder for a more distant day when I hope I can offer something more up to scratch.

What I’ll do here instead is provide a few brief thoughts on the topic prompted by a deeper dive I took recently into Francesca Bray’s fascinating book The Rice Economies (University of California Press, 1986) – an old book, but a very good one. Then I’m hoping I can come back in the future with something a bit more expansive.

A key organizing theme in Bray’s book is her contention that wheat in western countries and dryland cereal crops in general offer economies of scale in production that don’t exist in the case of the wet rice cultivation that dominates much of the populous regions of East, South and Southeast Asia. The combination of relatively scarce labour and relatively abundant land in the west (albeit that the latter was too often a function of colonial dispossession) created a dynamic of labour substitution and mechanization geared to increasing the per worker productivity of farming as an economic sector that’s come to be seen as exemplary of agricultural ‘progress’. In the wet rice regions, on the other hand, relatively abundant labour and relatively scarce land created a dynamic of agricultural development where the focus was using more (skilled) labour to increase the per acre productivity of the land.

From this point of departure, Bray unfurls an enormously detailed and sophisticated discussion of poverty, development, mechanization, landownership, credit, state formation, agrarian organization and much else besides which I hope to draw and elaborate from in future posts. But for now I’ll restrict myself to a couple of main points.

In certain situations of economic growth and capitalist development, there can be a compelling logic to agricultural labour substitution of the western kind. People quit the toilsome agrarian life for better paid jobs in industry or services, helping fuel an accumulation of capital and resources that redounds to the net benefit of all.

This is a pretty idealized vision of how capitalism works in practice, but it has a sufficient grain of historical truth to it in western societies to colour notions of a more labour-intensive agricultural future with a sense of regress and misplaced romanticism. Nevertheless, it matters where the accumulated capital and resources go. If labour substitution helps generate extra income that doesn’t find its way back to labourers, then to them there is no benefit. And this is basically what’s happening in the present phase of the global economy.

In the rice economies, on the other hand, capitalism was often built out from small-scale rice farming based on the intensive application of skilled labour, for example in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. And even where it wasn’t, intensive labour on the farm created opportunities for crop diversification and increased rural income in relatively egalitarian rural societies.

Turning to the present and probable future global situation, I’d suggest that Bray’s analysis of the rice economies provides a firmer foundation for grasping the agrarianism to come than the recent historical experience of the western wheat economies. In the face of climate change, energy squeeze and socioeconomic crisis, the new normal will most likely be situations where a lot of people are gathered in the diminishing areas of the world still propitious for farming – in other words, where labour is abundant and land is scarce. Generally, capital will not be accumulating, but melting away. In these situations, the wise course will not lie in trying to release people from agrarian labour for largely non-existent jobs in a declining capital-intensive sector, but in intensifying agricultural labour to best produce the things that people need to live a good life locally.

If people were to do that, it seems likely they would move away from cultivating more than the minimum necessary amount of wheat, maize etc and towards more diverse cropping of fruits, vegetables and other such crops which have more the characteristics of wet rice than wheat. They respond to labour-intensive, land-sparing husbandry, which is why rich countries like the UK and the USA that are sold on labour-sparing agricultures terraformed to the largest possible envelopes for machine working import so much of their fruit and vegetables from abroad.

All of which is to say that we need a more nuanced approach to discussions of agricultural ‘efficiency’ than is commonly found in both mainstream and alternative agricultural circles (referencing this discussion with Ernie on the latter point, while conceding my elaboration here is sketchy – hopefully something to be filled out further in the future). In brief, efficiency is not an end in itself, but a way of saving on the means. So there is no virtue in having a labour-lean, capital-intensive agriculture when labour is abundant and capital is thin on the ground. It will not improve quality of life, which is a more powerful underlying aim than mere ‘efficiency’. In these circumstances, labour productivity will be less important than land productivity. And trophic efficiency may be less important than figuring out an agriculture that keeps people tolerably fed year-round, ideally with some periods of slack in the annual labour cycle that enables them to devote themselves to other pursuits. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be fleshed out in emerging agrarian societies.

Over at The South Roane Agrarian, Brian Miller has recently made much the same point implicitly with an enumeration of the labour on his farm over the last twenty-one years since he took it on. It’s a similar timespan since I turned to the farming life, though most of Brian’s numbers are well ahead of mine. Perhaps he’s more efficient?

Well, to compare farms and farmers is always to compare apples with oranges. Sometimes literally. But Brian closes his post with an irreducibly apples/oranges comparison of the kind that many farmers make.

“1,126 times one of us has said to the other, “This is too much work.” 7,929 times one of us has thought, What a lovely and a lucky way to live.

The challenge in the future will be trying to maintain that 1,126:7,929 ratio and make it the reality for as many farmers as possible. Because there won’t be many other options.

The single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth…

…is a vegan diet. Well, at least it is according to Joseph Poore. But I have an alternative suggestion. The single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth is to stop thinking there’s a single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, or that bang for your buck metrics of this kind are helpful in formulating how best to live.

Here, I’ll elaborate that suggestion, grounding the discussion in the debate about veganism versus livestock farming. The debate gets a lot of airtime, and I’ll only touch lightly on a few aspects of it here. I say a little more about it in Chapter 8 of my book A Small Farm Future. As is often the case, it’s potentially endless, because the assumptions people bring to it and the contexts they apply them to are different. But hopefully I can at least clarify a few of those assumptions and contexts here.

Poore co-authored a widely-publicized paper a couple of years back that argued livestock products from even the best performing commercial farms have higher impacts across various environmental indicators than their vegetable counterparts (eg. each gramme of protein from beef has a higher impact on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, soil acidification, water eutrophication and scarce water drawdown than a corresponding gramme of protein from pulses). There are some aspects of the paper I’d quibble with, but by and large I don’t think there’s anything that’s demonstrably incorrect factually about the claims it makes (I can’t honestly say the same about some of Poore’s wider claims reported in the media).

However, as I said above, context is everything. So if your focus is the environmental impact of each unit of protein from ‘commercial farms’ of different styles, then without doubt the bean farm outdoes the beef one. But suppose you’re a smallholder living a low energy life, not a commercial beef farmer, and suppose you keep a cow or two. Your cows could help you do all or any of these things:

  • save work (including carbon-intensive machine work) by routing fertility around the farm
  • balance fertility in a timely way over the year (applying the summer’s surplus to the spring’s deficit)
  • turn inedible or harmful growth (unused marginal grazing, weeds) into food or fibre
  • help you manage your farmland in a low carbon or possibly even carbon-negative way
  • turn short-run or low value produce into longer-run or higher value produce (lard, butter, cheese) that improves your quality of life
  • provide transport and traction (oxen)
  • furnish useful coproducts (horn, bone, sinew, gut etc.)
  • provide a store of value and wealth
  • provide a source of companionship and pleasure…

…oh yes, and maybe provide some meat or milk too.

If you somehow factor all that into your calculations, then keeping cows may not look quite such a shabby option after all – especially since many of the points above are potentially carbon saving.

The same point applies to other kinds of farm livestock, all of which have their niche on the non-commercial farm as tappers, cyclers or producers of nutrients or other useful matter that are impossible or laborious for people to access directly. Their meat or other edible products are the bonus skimmed from the top of a larger, low-energy ecological labour.

But should you factor all that into your calculations? It’s not as if you’ll find a packet of multipurpose smallholder cow mince in the fresh meat aisle at Tesco’s, for reasons copiously analyzed over the years on this blog.

Meanwhile, the whole issue has become hyper-politicized on numerous fronts. On the one hand there’s the “Joe Biden Stole My Hamburger” brigade of entitled consumerism that’s been in the news lately, coopted by a rightwing politics of personal choice and freedom. On the other there’s the “pasture-fed beef can feed the world and sequester all our carbon emissions at the same time” shtick of regen-ag ultras. And on the third hand (three hands being a useful trait for a farmer) there’s the vegan “single biggest way to reduce your impact” or “cows are worse than cars” position.

None of these lines of argument withstand much scrutiny. It probably is true that if you find yourself in the supermarket in need of protein and you care about the intricate biotic web of the world and the human place within it then you’re better off buying beans than beef. And if the idea of not buying something to lower your environmental impact offends your sense of personal choice and freedom, then you probably shouldn’t be pushing a little cart around the supermarket picking stuff that other people have grown for you off the shelves and then standing in line to hand over your hard-earned cash to the giant corporate concern that owns it.

But I think we need to get beyond this arena of what I call ‘shopping aisle ethics’. If enough people care about the intricate biotic web of the world and the human place within it, then the multipurpose smallholder livestock-raising I mentioned earlier will become normalized by design because – as argued at length throughout my book – it’s hard to see a better way of providing for ourselves while caring adequately for that web than creating small farm-based communities, and low-energy smallholdings lacking in livestock are less efficient and more laborious places than ones that have some. Plus maybe you’ll find some real choice and freedom on your own small farm.

If, on the other hand, enough people don’t care about the intricate biotic web, then multipurpose smallholder livestock-raising will probably also become normalized, this time by default, because we’ll blow ourselves through the planetary boundaries that make other ways of life feasible, and folks with their noses to the grindstone will raise livestock to do a job of work.

Either way, we’ll be eating a lot less meat than consumers in the rich countries do today, and we’ll be worrying less about the single biggest way to reduce our impact on planet Earth, and a little more about the single biggest next job on the farm. If the latter is the main thing we’re worrying about, then the remaining denizens of ‘Planet Earth’ will probably have less to worry about from us.

Finally, a large part of the climate case against meat has to do with methane emissions from ruminants, but – as I discuss in more detail in A Small Farm Future – the conventions of methane accounting easily lead us to overstate the climate forcing impact of livestock and understate that of fossil fuels and other non-agricultural sources (which produce more methane than livestock globally anyway). But the wider issue is that the global fossil fuel economy underlies and enables the outsized global livestock economy. Without the former, we’d have to source much of our fibre, fertilizer and energy for industry and transport from the lands where we live, and this would put a constraint on the livestock we could raise on those lands that fossil fuels effectively remove.

So perhaps, after all, I’ve argued my way to the opposite of my opening gambit. There is one single biggest way to reduce your impact on the Earth – dispensing with fossil fuels. If we do that, livestock numbers will pretty much take care of themselves and will have minimal environmental impacts.

However, to make that happen isn’t a ‘single’ thing, and certainly not a thing that can be done by a simple choice in the shopping aisle. Instead, it’s a journey of many steps. And the journey will end for many people with a small farm where they live and work. For those with a taste for meat the good news is that when they get there they can raise a little livestock. In fact, they’d probably be unwise not to. The livestock they can feasibly raise won’t amount to a hill of beans as much meat as people in wealthy countries are used to eating at present. But if they’ve raised it themselves, with minimal off-farm inputs and maximal on-farm benefits, I think it’ll taste all the better gramme for gramme. Same goes for beans.

Alternative agriculture: a polite discussion

In this post I’m going to sweep up some issues left hanging from comments under my last one, along with further issues lurking within Part II of my book A Small Farm Future, and all wrapped up inside a larger point of contention. Each of these issues on its own could fill several posts, so we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Let’s start with the larger point of contention. In the face of contemporary environmental and agricultural problems, there’s a danger of succumbing to magic bullet, techno-fix thinking without paying attention to trade-offs and deeper complexities, or to socio-political issues. This applies of course to mainstream ‘light green’ or ‘ecomodernist’ thinking, with its enthusiasm for nuclear power, GMOs, smart cities, vertical farming and all the rest of it. But it also applies in the ‘alternative’ sector when ideas like regenerative agriculture, perennial grains, permaculture or intercropping (or, for that matter, solar panels, veganism etc.) are touted as one-stop solutions to our problems. Likewise, I think, with social solutionism. There’s no single or simple way of organizing society that ticks all boxes.

Over the years, I’ve set out my stall in straightforward opposition to mainstream techno solutionism, but also in what I’ve intended as friendly scepticism toward alternative solutionism. Alas, some of the debates prompted by this latter position haven’t always been that friendly. I don’t really want to go looking for arguments with anyone working broadly within alternative agriculture, permaculture or human-centred economics – though I’ve learned the hard way that people have different judgements about the boundary between ‘looking for discussion’ and ‘looking for arguments’.

One of these arenas is regenerative agriculture, discussed (all too briefly) in Chapter 6 of my book, where imaginations sometimes run wild with the idea that tweaking tillage and cover-cropping practices will enable farmers to feed the global population long-term without fundamental change to the organization of farming and society, while sequestering all our carbon emissions stably in the soil. As Gabe Brown has it, “Naysayers often question whether regenerative agriculture can really heal our planet while producing nutrient-dense food”1.

There’s quite a moral loading there on the ‘naysayers’, and a certain vagueness around what ‘healing the planet’ and ‘nutrient-dense food’  might mean. So I’d rephrase the sentence as follows: “It’s worth asking whether various specific regenerative agriculture practices could, if generalized, prevent soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion while sequestering human greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and providing enough food to feed expected human populations long-term.” And, whatever the associations with being a ‘naysayer’ might be, I think it would be wise to entertain the notion that the answer to this question might be no.

I talk about some of the emissions and food production issues implied here in more detail in A Small Farm Future. In terms of soil nutrients, Joshua Msika nicely summarizes the regen-ag approach as a focus on carbon as the limiting element: “Carbon provides the energy the soil micro-organisms need to mobilise the other nutrients: The energy to fix atmospheric nitrogen, the energy to mine locked-up phosphorus, etc.”

I find this plausible, including Joshua’s use of the word “mine” to refer to phosphorus and other non-gaseous plant nutrients – suggesting both the creativity of regen-ag thinking and the dangers of it falling into dogma if it’s presented as a simple techo-fix. For all the sound and fury of regen-ag advocacy, I’ve seen no estimates within it for the rate of this mining – and certainly not in the places where my critics told me to look. Happily, Clem Weidenbenner rode to my rescue under my last post, suggesting that currently there’s enough phosphorus for us to mine from the soils for about 100 years. This doesn’t seem to me an awfully long time, civilizationally. When you place it alongside looming energy scarcity I think it suggests not so much that regenerative agriculture can heal the planet while producing nutrient-dense food but that folks would be well advised to invest in compost toilets, cycle organic matter, move out of cities and learn how to garden organically.

It’s curious to me that alternative ag types who are generally quite wised up about the dangers of depleting resource pools and the benefits of ecological cycling seem so defiantly insistent that farmers can keep conjuring minerals out of nothing. To be fair, I did my share of defiant insisting myself some time ago, indeed to an embarrassing degree, so I guess I can understand the power of wishful thinking. The more so because modernist culture does like to insist on its ability to escape from limits (just so boringly ‘Malthusian’), to the extent that clever and well educated people like Pascal Bruckner can dismiss environmentalist enthusiasm for composting human waste as a crazy ‘scatological fantasy’, an ‘epiphany of the excremental’2, rather than, er, an attempt to cycle scarce and vital minerals through the agroecosystem.

So … count me in with carbon farming, nutrient dense food, healing the planet, cover cropping and soil protection. Also with cutting out fossil fuels, deurbanization and rural settlement, closed loop nutrient cycling, labour-intensive horticulture and compost toilets. I can’t really imagine a lasting ‘regenerative agriculture’ without that second list.

Another area of alternative agriculture where I’ve exercised my contrarian muscles over the years is in questioning an over-emphasis on perennial over annual crops. Don’t get me wrong – I think more perennials and fewer annuals is a necessary step. I continue to think that Mark Shepard goes way, way over the top when he writes “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one”2, and I still think it’s high time people in the alternative agriculture movement stopped demonising annual crops as some kind of original sin, and stopped over-promoting the labour and yield benefits of perennials. Nevertheless, we surely do need to embrace more perennial agricultures and try to transcend the tyranny of annual ‘staple’ crops – the ‘arable corner’ that I discuss in Chapter 5 of my book. Perhaps in the past I didn’t sufficiently acknowledge that the pro-perennial boosters have their heart in the right place. So mea culpa and note to myself: yes to more acorns, hazels, sea buckthorn, pendulous sedge and beef in my diet. Whereas sourdough? Maybe see you next week.

Finally, a word about intercropping and polycultures. On page 121 of A Small Farm Future, I write “Attempts to prove that diverse crop polycultures yield more biomass, calories or other nutrients acre for acre haven’t been conspicuously successful, except in the special and non-generalisable case of legume mixes”. Is that true? Well, maybe or maybe not – I’m interested in your opinions. The more important point, I think, is one that I go on to make on pp.121-2:  “[mixes] of annual and perennial food crops, orchards, pasture and woodland [work] as reasonably integrated whole with complementarities that support human livelihoods on the farm and in the nearby town, while lowering external dependencies for energy and other inputs.”

Whatever the optimum mix or non-mix of crops might be at plot or field level in relation to desired outputs like yield, I suspect that at the township, farmscape or foodshed level, a small farm future will be a crop diverse farm future.

In summary: two cheers for regenerative agriculture, perennial cropping, intercropping and naysaying. Now let the argument discussion begin…

 

Notes

  1. Gabe Brown. 2018. Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green, p.186.
  2. Pascal Bruckner. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. Polity, pp.150-3.
  3. Mark Shepard. 2013. Restoration Agriculture. Acres USA, p.xix.

Some further thoughts on organic fertility

I’m going to continue my theme from my last post about organic fertility in future farming, picking up on a few of the very interesting comments that people made in response to it. Apologies that it’s taken me a while to get around to this follow up post – work just keeps finding me. In fact, I’m going to keep this briefer than originally planned so as to keep my head above the water.

Anyway, many thanks for the comments. For the most part, I’m not going to respond to named individuals, instead focusing on the general issues people raised. I’m going to do it in the form of a set of numbered propositions that hopefully will clarify my position, and perhaps also act as a spur to further discussion. A lot of the comments focused in one way or another around the framing of my post, so I’ll begin with that.

  1. The title of my previous post – ‘Can organic farming feed the world?’ – was probably a poor choice and arguably falls into a Lakoff framing trap, with its underlying implication that non-organic (‘conventional’, ‘industrial’ or synthetic nitrogen) farming faces no parallel question. For my part, I do not assume that non-organic farming as it’s generally practiced at present will be able to continue to feed the world (in fact, I strongly suspect it won’t be able to). All the same, I think it’s legitimate to ask the same question of organic farming, and follow through on the implications.

 

  1. The structure of my post followed David Connor’s paper, which looked top-down globally at the amount of biological (‘organic’) nitrogen fixation (BNF) and the amount of synthetic (‘non-organic’/‘industrial’) nitrogen fixation (SNF). An alternative approach is to look bottom-up locally – how much land and other resources do I need to provision myself without SNF in the place/region/country where I live? This latter approach is precisely the one I took in Chapter 11 of my book A Small Farm Future for the case of the UK – and the answers I came up with is ‘not very much’ and ‘yes, we can easily provision ourselves using only BNF’. But you have to make a lot of detailed assumptions to undertake the bottom-up approach, which are difficult enough for a single country or bioregion, let alone for the whole world. So there’s something to be said for looking top-down globally as a complementary approach, starting from the reality of how much BNF and SNF there actually is in the present world.

 

  1. Still, the problem with this top-down, status quo approach is that it often mistakes the way things are for the way they should or must be. I like to think that my previous post gently undermines such assumptions in Connor’s paper. We don’t need to devote cropland to livestock production. We can devote more labour to global agriculture than we presently do. We don’t need to waste so much food. And so on. In this way, I think we move the debate more towards the bottom-up approach. Can we get by globally with only BNF? Probably yes, just about, if we change some of our framing assumptions about how we do agriculture globally.

 

  1. But why does it matter whether we can get by with only BNF? In the world as it presently is, at the level of the individual farm, my answer is – it doesn’t. Indeed there may sometimes be a case for using SNF and, at the farmer-to-farmer level, I concede there’s much to be said for avoiding a polarized SNF versus BNF debate (with the proviso that this onus also falls on pro-SNF, anti-organic advocates like Connor). However, I think it does matter at the level of the total farm system, because SNF requires highly complex industrial infrastructure, and it readily enables farmers to engage in non-resilient and unsustainable cycles of productivity gain. I don’t think we can build congenial and renewable cultures long-term on this basis. So if it turns out we can’t feed ourselves without SNF, then we’re in quite a predicament. Happily, that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Suggesting how that may be so was the main point of my previous post.

 

  1. There are different ways to increase productivity in agriculture, of which N fixation methods are only one. Another is devoting more human labour to smaller, more intensively worked holdings and farmscapes. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this more labour-intensive approach for a renewable human future – it’s central to my book, and to this blog. Implicitly, though, more labour-intensive farming probably means more BNF. It certainly means more careful N cycling.

 

  1. Underlying the N debate is another one about the place of livestock in our farming and of meat in our diets. I’m not going to wade too deeply into that here, although I’m aiming to devote a future post to it (see also Chapter 8 of A Small Farm Future). Commenters on my previous post touched on the issue of using soy to manufacture ‘fake meat’ more efficiently than of using it to feed livestock that are slaughtered for meat. Again, I see this as a present vs future food system issue. In present circumstances, maybe there’s something to be said for favouring ‘fake meat’ over actual meat. In future circumstances, there will be something to be said for a world of smallholdings and agricultural commons where livestock are kept primarily to improve the efficiency of tapping and cycling nutrients in low energy farming systems. Either way, we will be producing a lot less ‘real’ meat for human consumption (though its consumption across the population may be better distributed).

 

  1. Thinking in terms of BNF and SNF rather than organic/conventional farming is useful to avoid missing the various ways in which N from SNF finds its way into organic farming or gardening, which people then too easily assume derives from BNF. This is probably even more important when it comes to phosphate rather than N. The study cited by Shaun Warkentin suggests that around 70% of P inputs in a sample of organic farms in France came from conventional sources, and the main conventional source for P is unsustainable mining. Ultimately, the long-term necessity to cycle rather than mine P could be a key factor propelling humanity back to a predominantly rural, distributed and agrarian human geography.

 

  1. The excellent possibilities for BNF and for P cycling in small-scale paddy rice farming systems suggest they are a renewable farming approach of choice for the future where they’re feasible. The methanogenic nature of paddy farming (and of smallholder livestock keeping) is irrelevant to its long-term sustainability, whereas short-term elimination of fossil fuel combustion is critical. Economic development policies should support small-scale paddy farming and avoid explicit or implicit fossil fuel dependence.

 

  1. With characteristically effective sleuthing, Steve L has uncovered the figure of 28 Mt of fertilizer lost annually in the food supply chain. With this corrected for, the need for SNF potentially shrinks to near zero – but I’m not sure how much N there is in this 28 Mt, so I’ll leave that tantalizing prospect hanging for now.

Can organic farming feed the world?

I discuss various aspects of so-called ‘alternative’ agriculture at some length in Chapter 6 of A Small Farm Future1, and I don’t intend to retrace many of those steps here. But there’s a couple of further things I do want to say in this blog cycle. Here, I’ll focus on organic farming.

On page 125 (and also page 150) of my book I cite a 2007 study by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2, one of whom is Jahi Chappell who sometimes comments here, so I’m hoping he might weigh in with his thoughts on this post. Their paper suggests that organic agriculture based on biological fixation of nitrogen is capable of meeting global food demands without reliance on industrial synthesis of nitrogenous fertiliser (from now on in this post I’m going to use the symbols N to refer to plant-available nitrogen, BNF to refer to biological (or ‘organic’) nitrogen fixation and SNF to refer to synthetic/industrial nitrogen fixation). Interestingly, the Badgley paper also suggest that while organic yields in rich countries are typically lower than their ‘conventional’ counterparts, the opposite is often the case in poor countries, a point to which I’ll return.

Since the publication of my book, I’ve become aware of various papers by Professor David Connor critiquing the Badgley paper, and more generally the notion that it’s feasible to feed the world without SNF. Although I identify with organic/alternative agriculture and have never used synthetic N in my own farming, I don’t take an absolutely purist line about it in relation to the global food system. If SNF is necessary in some circumstances, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Still, SNF is an energy-intensive business requiring a complex industrial infrastructure. Given energy and other constraints in the future, if it turned out we needed SNF at similar levels to the present to feed the world this would be quite a stumbling block for arguments favouring low-energy agrarian localism. So it’s worth considering Connor’s arguments.

The main objection to the possibility of ‘feeding the world’ through organic agriculture based on BNF is that it’s typically lower yielding than SNF-based agriculture. This yield penalty has two components – lower yield acre for acre in the corresponding crops, and the fact that organic agriculture has to build N via rotations with leguminous non-food cover crops that further increase its land-take. Connor argues that the Badgley paper failed to take proper account of this second issue, and therefore overestimated the global potential of organic agriculture.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that point, I’m going to take a different tack and consider some figures that Connor presents3. He says that 21 Mega tonnes (Mt) of N are fixed annually by cover crop legumes, with the total amount of BNF estimated between 33-46Mt. This contrasts with 113Mt of SNF, giving the measure of the challenge – apparently a major shortfall in the possibility of feeding the world organically.

But let’s take a closer look at these figures, most of which are based on a 2008 paper by David Herridge and co-authors4. I’m going to see if I can find some ways to narrow the discrepancy between BNF and SNF reported by Connor, which at worst is over a fivefold difference in favour of synthetic (113:21). It’s rather a back-of-the-envelope job, and some of the underlying issues are quite complex, so of course I’d welcome any comments or refinements.

The Herridge paper that Connor draws on proposes a larger amount of global BNF than Connor of 50-70Mt, as follows:

Pasture & fodder – 12-25Mt

Rice – 5 Mt

Sugar cane – 0.5Mt

Legume cropland – 21.45Mt

Non-legume cropland – <4Mt

Extensive savanna – <14Mt

 

Connor’s 33-46Mt figure presumably comes from adding legume cropland to the lower and higher bounds of the pasture & fodder figures (21+12=33, 21+25=46), so he’s ignoring the other forms of BNF reported by Herridge. This seems reasonable in the case of extensive savanna, little of which is likely to find its way back into the agro-ecosystem, but not so reasonable in the case of the other, admittedly fairly minor, BNF sources – rice, sugar cane and non-legume cropland. So I propose to incorporate these into the BNF figure. This gives a range of 39-56 Mt BNF, something of an improvement on the worst-case ratio, but still at best only half the SNF figure.

Let’s now look at livestock. According to the FAO, 33% of global cropland is devoted to producing livestock fodder. This is a choice that humans make – in fact, that primarily rich humans make – and I’d suggest not a wise one in view of the energy and other squeezes we face. Therefore, I think we can drop it from our modelling. We need to design a renewable food system that can feed the global population adequately, fitting livestock into it where we can, rather than designing livestock systems to meet the demand for meat which compromise food access and renewability.

I’m not sure quite how to quantify this adjustment, however. Soy is a major fodder crop, and also an N-fixer, so possibly the proportion of global cropland devoted to producing fodder has lower SNF needs? Obviously, some of the N that’s fixed ends up in the fodder and not in the field, although some of that then ends up in manure which may be available as BNF. But I’m not sure how best to adjust for these pathways – and of course there are a lot of non-N fixing fodder crops. So for now I’m going to allocate 33% of SNF proportionately to the 33% of fodder cropland, until someone suggests a better methodology. So that’s 33% of superfluous SNF, which takes us down to 76 Mt SN.

SNF used for boosting the productivity of long-term pastures for livestock is, I’d argue, another superfluous use. I don’t have global figures for this. Rough calculations for the UK suggest that we use about 30% of our SN on pastures. I suspect the figure is much lower in most other countries. I’ll arbitrarily assume that it amounts to 3% globally – further information welcome. This would take total SNF down to 73 Mt.

The next thing to look at is human waste. Each of us excretes about 20g of N per day in urine and faeces – which amounts to a lot of N aggregated across the human population over a year. Here in the UK, we already do a pretty good job of getting this back to the fields, but at quite a high energetic cost in water treatment and transport. One of the arguments in favour of ruralization is that it’s much easier energetically to get human nutrients back into the fields when people are actually living on them (a graver threat to urbanism than many seem to appreciate, especially in relation to phosphate rather than N). Let’s assume we can get 75% of the N contained in global humanure into the fields (again, I’m open to a more refined analysis with this parameter). This shrinks annual global SN to 25 Mt.

Then there are various losses associated with international trade, processing and consumer waste, which could be vitiated in a society based on local food production. I estimate these at a rough and ready 19% on the basis of a paper by Mike Berners-Lee and colleagues5 – admittedly one with a somewhat different focus, so again I’m open to more nuanced clarification. This reduces SN to 20 Mt – about the same as BNF from legume cropland, and much less than is currently fixed by BNF overall.

There are various other ways in which we might nibble away at this remaining SNF figure. For example, we might invest more in plant breeding and crop development to maximize edible matter per unit of N input and increase organic yields, which has scarcely been an agronomic priority in recent times. Or we might increase the N input from wild margins either directly or through livestock intermediaries, or cut back on certain kinds of N-demanding production, or improve crop production through other means like irrigation, or improve N uptake in existing crops. Maybe we could reduce SN by such means to around 10 Mt, down from the initial figure of 113 Mt. The possible fivefold excess of SN over BFN (113:21) may now be reversed (10:56) – perhaps to the extent that it’s no longer wholly implausible to imagine a low-energy small farm future that’s largely an organic one?

A final point. Professor Connor writes:

“My concern is for the resource-poor farmers, especially in Sub Saharan Africa, who overwhelmingly are targets for help and advice to apply organic methods from misguided community organizations based in other countries. Soil fertility is so low there after at least a century of intensive nutrient extraction without replacement that denial of the need for N fertilizer makes the process of agricultural renovation impossible”5

 

This concern seems a worthy one. If the world does still need a modicum of SNF, the people who unquestionably need it most are poor (usually small-scale) farmers in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. Whether those advising these farmers to apply organic methods are ‘misguided’ is another matter, because there’s a long history of poor farmers getting locked into dependency on high-cost inputs like synthetic N, largely to the benefit of those selling the inputs rather than to the farmers. So the advice of movements like Zero Budget Natural Farming in India for poor farmers to farm organically without SNF seems to me well founded. The higher yields for organic farming in poor countries reported in the Badgley paper seemed to arise from the availability of extension and advice helping farmers to manage inputs more systematically. This should surely be the first option to explore in improving yields before moving on to more energy-intensive options like SNF.

But perhaps we can frame this point about nitrogen equity the other way around. Given the grossly unfair distribution of global resources, rich countries should stop trying to squeeze greater productivity out of their own farming systems through profligate (or, perhaps, any) use of SNF, and make SN available at low or no cost to poor farmers in poor countries, should the latter feel the need for it.

 

Notes

  1. Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future. Chelsea Green.
  2. Catherine Badgley et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22: 86-108.
  3. David Connor. 2018. Land required for legumes restricts the contribution of organic agriculture to global food security. Outlook on Agriculture. 47: 277-82.
  4. David Herridge et al. 2008. Global inputs of biological nitrogen fixation in agricultural systems. Plant and Soil. 311: 1–18.
  5. Mike Berners-Lee et al. Current global food production is sufficient to meet
    human nutritional needs in 2050 provided there is
    radical societal adaptation. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. 6: 52.
  6. David Connor. 2018. Organic agriculture and food security: A decade of unreason finally implodes. Field Crops Research. 225: 128-9.

Home is not the house but where the garden is

My title is a quotation from archaeologist Francis Pryor’s book about ‘prehistoric’ Britain, but it serves well enough as a summary of the general argument in my own book about our likely global future, and the need to refocus the household from a place of economy to a place of ecology1. Pryor suggests that early farmers in Britain grew mixed crops including vegetables in small provision grounds from which livestock were fenced out, provision grounds that were associated with small houses accommodating a handful of people. In fact, he argues that small-household sedentism stretches far back into the pre-agricultural Mesolithic in Britain, and we know that it’s been a common arrangement in agricultural and non-agricultural societies globally down to the present.

I’ll discuss in later posts the social and political implications of such household arrangements. Here, I’ll just raise a few points about their ecology that I touch on in my book, mostly in Chapter 7 (‘The apothecary’s garden’).

There are basically four reasons why I think a garden homestead commends itself as the habitation of the future (and, apparently, the past). First there’s an input-output circularity that’s ecologically efficient. The food and some of the fibre and medicines that the household occupants need is conveniently right there outside the house, and the waste products of the house – food scraps and human waste – are conveniently located as inputs into the garden to build its soils and organic matter.

Second, the garden requires a lot of human labour, which is most efficiently and effectively delivered when it’s associated with where people live. There are various dimensions to this – for example, noticing what’s going on in the garden and what the crops’ needs are because you’re there most of the time; finding time to deliver extra crop care at odd moments in the domestic round; the ability to protect the crops from the unwanted attention of human and non-human organisms because you’re on the spot; and of course reduced commuting and transport costs.

Third, talking of transport costs, it’s possible to grow a wider variety of crops in the home garden than in the commercial field. Produce that’s too bulky to transport long distances, that won’t keep long, that can’t easily be processed for final use without fiddly work, or that can’t easily be protected from pests – all of this becomes possible in the home garden, potentially increasing variety, nutrition and resilience.

Finally, production in the home garden is potentially self-limiting. You grow to meet household needs, then stop. There is no inherent external dynamic coaxing you to produce more in order to live well that results in over-exploitation of your local ecological resources. And, if you do overstretch productivity, the negative consequences will soon be directly apparent to you and likely remediable.

I’m not particularly suggesting that all households should be like this and that all farming should be of this sort – we’ll come to some quantifications around this presently. But, for the reasons just outlined, I do suggest that this is a promising direction in which to move our farm ecologies generally.

There are a couple of further points about small-household farming that I’d like to make. First, there’s been a long-running and sometimes fierce academic debate about the widespread finding that poor, small-scale, household farmers in low-income countries gain higher per acre yields than richer, larger-scale commercial farmers – the so-called inverse productivity relationship (IR). The main reason the debate has been long-running and fierce is that it contradicts the dominant narrative that larger and more capitalized is always best – and of course carries the implication troubling to various strands of ‘development’ theory that support for and land reform in favour of small-scale household farmers may be the optimum economic strategy. So people have spent a lot of time trying to disprove it.

The issues underlying the IR are interesting, but I’ve written about some of them before and I don’t want to plunge into them here (I touch on them lightly in Chapter 7 of my book). I think it’s possible to make too much of it on both sides of the debate. On the one side, Marxists and other proponents of mainstream economic development have tied themselves implausibly in knots trying to prove that the IR is either illusory or symptomatic of extreme poverty, and therefore not challenging to their depeasantization/industrialization narrative. On the other, the fact that small household farms can sometimes be a bit more productive than their larger counterparts isn’t ipso facto an argument for a small farm future, and only becomes relevant within larger social and agronomic contexts. Nevertheless, the existence of the IR does help underline the point that a world of small-scale farming is not likely to be one that fails to meet the challenge of feeding the world by virtue of farm scale.

Onwards to my final point. Going back to Francis Pryor’s description of fenced Neolithic provision grounds, it’s worth remarking that some of the productivity of the small farm stems from intricate and labour-intensive terraforming and internal differentiation. A small farm with a garden and some goats sited conveniently close to a river can greatly surpass the productivity of a farm with only goats, or only a garden, or with no reliable source of water. But to realize the productivity, a lot of work needs to go into creating internal flows and, by the same token, internal boundaries.

While the manure from the goats might usefully flow (hopefully in a more figurative than literal sense) into the garden, the goats themselves need to be kept out of it, and the flows of water from the river likewise need to be under the farmer’s control. I once did some fencing and ditching on my farm with the reluctant help from a visitor inclined to a more hands-off approach. To him these were unnatural linearities imposed on the organic world – “I don’t like to see fences. What are you trying to exclude, and what are you trying to contain?” Well, in the example above, I’m trying to exclude the goats and the river from trashing the garden, and I’m trying to contain – or just get – a tolerable harvest. Like the different parts of a cell separated by membranes, sometimes things only work well together when they’re kept somewhat apart. The route agriculture has often taken is to keep things radically apart – goats in the desert, leafy greens on the hydroponic urban farm, rivers dredged and canalized. But the ecology of the small, low-impact farm involves internal differentiation with judicious mixture.

I suspect also that the sociology of small, low-impact farm society involves internal differentiation with judicious mixture, but that’s a whole other issue that we’ll come to presently.

Notes

  1. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home. Penguin.

Swidden as politics

I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.

Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).

There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.

One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.

This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.

Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons.  Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.

But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.

Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.

Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.

One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).

But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.

Where the story takes us

Pervasive, multi-faceted crisis and a cultural inability to deal with it: I’ve now said what I want to say in this cycle of posts about Chapters 1 and 2 of my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m ready to move onto Chapter 3. But first let’s take a breather. If there’s anything in the first two chapters you’d like me to further explain or justify, let me know (preferably by commenting at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk where I’ll be sure to see the comment).

While we’re dawdling here, maybe I’ll say something about stories. On page 54 of my book, I discuss the idea of ‘symbolic goods’, which bears on how human actions arise out of the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is – or, as Clifford Geertz famously put it, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”1. So we’re motivated by stories, and there are different stories we can tell about the same reality. Ultimately, though, factors independent of our stories condition their outcome whether we like it or not, and if we don’t find good ways of incorporating them into the narrative, then eventually the story will crumble.

Chapters 1 and 2 of my book tell a story about how our current modern global civilization has got itself into a mess by disregarding some such factors that complicate its tale of endless self-improvement. In writing them, I drew on a lot of research and evidence that I think make my own story quite robust. Nobody has yet convinced me that the story of these chapters is substantially wrong in its main details (there are some minor points I might now recast), though certainly there are other webs of significance that could be spun, and it’s not impossible I could be convinced that another story is more plausible. Which is why I’m dawdling at this crossroads into Chapter 3, waiting for another storyteller to come along and take me somewhere different…

While I wait, I’d like to mention three, perhaps four, other stories that have come to my attention lately.

The first relates to climate change, and has been spun around a recently published scientific paper suggesting that a stabilization of the Earth’s climate would occur much quicker than previously thought if human-caused greenhouse gas emissions cease2. Not my area of expertise, of course, but my sense of this paper is that it bore quite a lot of other news about the effects of current human emissions which was far from positive. However, the most prominent discussions of it among climate scientists that came to my attention on social media built a story from the climate stabilisation point to ridicule ‘end of civilisation’ doomsters for not keeping up with the science, positioning them alongside climate change deniers for imperilling concerted climate action.

There are two aspects of story-telling that interest me in this. The first is people’s meta-concern with the character of their story as a status claim in its own right, which is ubiquitous in discussions of climate change. My story is optimistic, pragmatic or science-based whereas your story is doomy climate porn or is tantamount to denialism because it lacks hope. No doubt there’s something to be said for addressing the wider effects of our stories on other people, but in my view those concerned about climate change spend too much precious time pointing fingers at other concerned people based on the supposed superior impact of their narrative. Enough. Call things as you see them, take action accordingly, be prepared to discuss and be prepared to be wrong. But don’t waste time plumping the meta-efficacy of your chosen narrative.

The second aspect is that while a few political leaders have stated their commitment to achieving net zero, the fact is we’re not even remotely on a path to achieving it, and new coal mines and fossil power stations are merrily sprouting up around the world. So to take the finding that ‘if we reach net zero, then the climate stabilizes’ as a way to lambast climate pessimism puts a heavier loading on the ‘if’ in that sentence than any real-world trend can bear. There’s a danger here of telling ourselves a nice story, whose protective armour allows us to dismiss other, darker stories when the armour isn’t real.

The second story I want to mention has gradually been taking shape in my mind of late as an identifiable narrative trend. It goes roughly like this: “The old-fashioned practices of industrial agriculture certainly did contribute to many of our contemporary problems, but innovative new forms of skills-intensive and tech-intensive smart agriculture mean that farmers can now feed the world sustainably while removing carbon from the atmosphere and making a lot of money too.” I propose to call this the “smart farming story”. And I don’t believe in it.

There are various entry points into the fallacies of the smart farming story, many of which I’ve covered on this blog over the years. I won’t pursue them here, except to say that if your farming makes you a lot of money then I’m pretty sure it won’t be helping solve our contemporary problems. I’m also pretty sure the money-making won’t last long. I’d propose this alternative: “Don’t worry too much about feeding the world or cutting carbon with your farming. Just try to do what you can to help your area grow as much food and fibre as possible to meet its local needs using whatever techniques you like, provided they use little fossil fuel and make little money”.

The final story or stories is something I was tracking a bit more avidly back in 2016 with the votes in the UK for Brexit and in the US for Donald Trump. In early 2021 both have reached a denouement, though perhaps not an ending, with a whimper in the former case and a bang in the second. The Brexit story involves two versions of neoliberalism, one based inside the EU and the other outside it, the latter mis-sold to the public as a story of nationalist assertion. The touted economic benefits for the people are unsurprisingly failing to materialise, though perhaps some will be happy that our fish are now British. For the rest of us, I’d suggest, the story now has to be about trying to create real popular localism out of the absurdities of Brexit, not a race to the bottom that will benefit only a few.

Regarding Trump, I doubt there’s much I can say that others haven’t already said better. The answer to the problems of our times may not be Biden-Harris, but it most certainly isn’t Trump and … that other guy. In keeping with my overall theme for this post, let me just say that I was struck by how very strange was the web of significance that so many of Trump’s insurrectionists in Washington DC had spun for themselves. People who believed themselves to be a part of a revolution were surprised that they were pepper sprayed by the police, or banned from flying home? What happened was serious, but the story that a lot of the protagonists seemed to have built around themselves was fundamentally unserious, as if they were mere actors in a TV show.

To generalize from this to my wider theme, I see this unseriousness, this TV show mentality, everywhere in our contemporary stories about ourselves – from the way we talk about climate change (it’s bad, but not so bad that it’s really going to change our world, ‘if’ we reach net zero), to the way we talk about smart farming (it’s good, so good that it can save our world and make us loads of money too), and even to the way we try to topple governments (it’s wild, it’s patriotic, and then we can fly home for the weekend).

We need some different stories.

Notes

  1. Clifford Geertz. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures, p.5.
  2. Chen Zhou et al. 2021. Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. Nature Climate Change.

A Small Farm Future – seasonal update

I wasn’t planning to write another pre-Christmas post, but a few items have come across the editorial desk which I want to share.

First, I’m excited to be doing a webinar on 27 January along with Vandana Shiva and Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm (and author of Farming While Black) – further details TBA. I’m also recording a podcast early in January with Ben Trollinger of Acres USA, running a panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on delivering a small farm future at 12 noon GMT on 11 January, doing a guest session on the Surviving the Future course on 13 January, speaking at the RIHN symposium on 15 January and at the NOFA-New Jersey conference on 31 January. Further details likewise TBA – do check the My Book page of the website. I’ve just updated it, but sheesh it’s a fast-moving field!

I have various other things going on in the background too in January, possibly even some farm work, so I may not get around to doing much blogging. But I’ll try to knock out the next post in my present series where I blog my way through my book sometime in early January. Then I hope to see you on the other side!

In other news, Jura has sent me this picture of his Christmas preparations, referencing a discussion we had on here some time ago. Or else search online for ‘Polish Christmas traditions’ or ‘carp in the bath’.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re eating, my best wishes for the holidays and a happy new year.