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