From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism

A step sideways from my last two posts about urbanism and ruralism with a review of George Monbiot’s book Regenesis (Allen Lane, 2022) – though it’s kind of a propos, since his book showcases the pro-urbanism and anti-ruralism I’ve been critiquing.

When you read a book with which you profoundly disagree, I guess it’s usually best just to shrug, put it back on the shelf and get on with your work. The hatchet job review is a popular but ignoble genre. Having been the object of one myself I can attest the outcomes are rarely positive, apart perhaps from a warm glow of superiority in the reviewer, which is usually ephemeral.

So I want to tread carefully, particularly because George is a decent human being who’s devoted his considerable talents to making the world a better place and who scarcely deserves most of the mud that’s flung at him. Still, when I gave a talk about my own book at the Food and Farming Literature Festival, Miles King asked for my views on George’s analysis, noting it was the elephant in the room for those like me making the case for agrarian localism. Now that I’ve read the book, I’d have to agree with Miles. If George’s vision comes to pass I think it will, contrary to his own aspirations, represent an alignment between progressive environmentalism and corporate-capitalist interests that will delay further, perhaps catastrophically, the need to create low-input agrarian localisms and ecological culture.

So, given his influence, I feel the need to make the case as best I can for localist alternatives to George’s regenesis. I will try to do it while being mindful of the pitfalls of the hatchet job.

Farmers often get riled by George’s plain dislike of livestock farming, more so by his almost as plain dislike of livestock farmers. He’s now extended the former pretty much to farming in general. But the main problem with his analysis as I see it is the underlying assumptions about human society and ecology. That’s mostly what I’m going to write about here under four headings – urbanism, government, land sparing and modernism – but there are some agricultural puzzles at the heart of the book, and we’ll need to look at those too.

First, it might be helpful to offer a brief thumbnail of the book’s structure. And to give credit where it’s due, it all starts off very well with a nice chapter about the work George does in the orchard he planted in Oxford and the amazing organisms in the soil beneath it, followed by two strong chapters that forensically anatomize the pathologies of the food and farming system in Britain and beyond. Things start to go awry at the end of that third chapter with the case for land sparing, which I’ll come to. But then the book changes direction with three engaging but problematic chapters about various people, mostly in Britain, striving to address these pathologies and improve the existing food and farming system.

These chapters are problematic because, while they’re sympathetic (sometimes overly) to their protagonists and the approaches they’ve taken, they don’t characterize the issues underlying these approaches sharply enough. With one surprising exception, this allows George to set the various approaches up – albeit in the nicest possible way – to fail in comparison to his preferred approach. This is the factory-based fermentation of food to feed humanity, the (also problematic) case for which is laid out briefly in Chapter 7 of the book.

The book then moves to a wrap-up by way of Chapter 8, the most problematic of the lot, which basically elaborates George’s contention that “The pastoral story is one that urban civilization tells against itself without a flicker of disquiet: the shepherds and their sheep are good and pure, while the city is base and venal” (p.216). If only that were true, we’d be a darned sight closer to creating genuinely regenerative and renewable human ecologies than at present, though still a way off. Alas, the opposite is the case.

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s turn to my first problematic theme of the book – urbanism.

Urbanism

George quarrels frequently with arguments for local food throughout his book, but the real clincher as far as he’s concerned is an oft-cited study in Nature Food that found it would only be possible to feed a small proportion of the world’s people from food grown within a 100km radius of their homes, because so many people live in cities far away from the world’s breadbasket regions. In George’s words,

You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of the world’s population and of the regions suitable for farming, the abandonment of long-distance trade would be a recipe for mass starvation (p.146)

Later on, he writes that “most of our food has to be grown, for simple mathematical reasons, far from where we live” (p.226).

Suppose we shifted the focus from the distribution of the population across space to the distribution of money across the population. We might then rerun the first quotation something like this:

You can negotiate with politics and economics, market structure and corporate power. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. Given the distribution of global wealth and of occupations suitable for amassing it, policies to radically alter these would be a recipe for mass impoverishment and ruralization.

I doubt George would ever write that second paragraph. But then why write the first? The distribution of the human population towards cities and away from productive farmlands isn’t a matter of simple mathematics but of a complex (though perhaps not that complex) political, economic and social history that you absolutely can argue with, that’s strongly related to the distribution of wealth, and that in any case is beginning to rewrite itself regardless of anyone’s arguments. For reasons that I and others have explored elsewhere, the future is going to be rural. And in that future the places where most people will live will be the ones that are suitable for farming. Not for mathematical reasons, but for ecological and biophysical ones.

That does not, of course, mean it’s a good idea to abandon long-distance food trade overnight, which certainly would result in mass starvation. Happily, no serious proponent of local food does argue that. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to start rethinking global trade and settlement patterns from the ground up, bearing in mind the coming rural re-exodus from fossil fuelled and capital-fuelled urbanization. I concede it’s a difficult thing to do. So is redistributing wealth. But it’s fundamentally a political and ecological thing to do. Arithmetic has little to do with it.

In Chapter 3, George makes a familiar, and superficial, case against local food – what I’d call the bad-beef-and-heated-greenhouses gambit. As I discussed in my previous post, the main problem is that this gambit considers only the unit carbon costs of high-input systems, not the total costs of such systems compared to low-input local alternatives. I won’t go over that ground again here. The debate, if you can call it that, between localists and global food trade proponents is pretty polarised. Maybe there’s space for some middle ground. Just because localism can’t provide everything it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t provide more. But ultimately I think there’s a parting of the ways between the two visions here. Urbanism and long-distance trade require massive carbon, energy and materials intensive infrastructures that I doubt will be feasible in the long-term within liveable planetary boundaries, so to me the ‘mathematics’ suggests local food production and a migratory exodus to where that’s possible – in other words, to ruralism.

Therefore, it’s worth preparing for a different future and seeking inspiration where it can be found. George mentions the “traditional, benign system of management” practiced by the Maasai (p.80) and the “transformative” nature of the Zero Budget Natural Farming approach in Southern India (p.176). But when it comes to agrarian traditions closer to home, the sympathy dries up – preindustrial rural life in Britain involved “grinding misery” (p.215), “the countryside is neither innocent nor pure. In some places, it is more corrupt than the city” (p.223), “traditionally, rich and diverse diets prepared from fresh ingredients depended (and still depend in some parts of the world) on the near-servitude of the women who cooked them” (p.206).

It’s not that these claims are groundless. But they’re over-generalized nostrums, not analysis, and they work rhetorically to sanitize the modern city, which has plenty of misery, impurity and patriarchy of its own. I’m sure this isn’t his intention, but in George’s telling it’s almost as if a bit of ruralism and agroecology is OK for poor herdsmen and farmers in low-income countries, but ill becomes us wealthy denizens of the urbanized and so-called ‘developed’ countries. As I see it, the lessons of agrarian localism from past and present societies worldwide run very much deeper, and we in the rich countries are probably the ones that most need to learn them.

Government

The lack of deeper analysis about the histories of urbanization and poverty is an odd feature of the book. For all the coruscating vigour of its assault on the existing food and farming system in the early pages, the main policy message is a rather limp ‘there ought to be a law against it’. Indeed, as George points out, often enough there is a law against it, but the law is ignored and unenforced.

Bad governance and self-interested corporate lobbying are every bit the curses George identifies, but this falls a long way short of a structural understanding of the political economy. What is the history that has delivered so many people to the city? What kind of work is keeping them there rather than producing an agrarian livelihood in the countryside? Why are some people so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why are some countries so rich, while so many more are so poor? Why has farming become so ecocidal?

I won’t try to answer those questions here – I provide a brief account in A Small Farm Future. But in failing to address them, I think George builds his proposals on weak foundations. To safeguard the industrial fermentation of food he advocates from corporate capture he calls for strong anti-trust laws, open-source innovation and technology transfer. Which is all great, but it’s scarcely happened in the food system to date and there’s no reason to think industrial fermentation will be different. In fact, there are reasons to think it’ll be worse.

Likewise, George wants to extract people from farming and the countryside to leave more room for nature. But, as he rightly says, “Intensification will spare wild places from farming only if it’s coupled with a strong political commitment to protect or restore them” (p.92). He doesn’t explain what will generate that commitment in a corporatized and urbanized world.

A localist critique of this present world begins by understanding that the price of food and other necessities, the price of human labour, the price of land and housing, the price of energy and the price of money are interrelated in complex ways with the simple result of badly screwing most people on the planet, and screwing future generations and the natural world worse. All serious attempts to make the case for agrarian localism appreciate that these prices, their interrelation and everything entailed in that need a fundamental rethink.

Instead, the tack George takes is to argue that food prices must be kept low so as not to further disadvantage the poor (I’d recommend a look at the writing of Eric Holt-Giménez’s among others for an alternative, perhaps counterintuitive but more plausible argument that low food prices in fact are a fundamental cause of global poverty). With merely anecdotal evidence from a chance encounter with a well-dressed woman and her superficial views (pp.129-31), George is anxious to pigeonhole the local food movement as a form of elitism that’s ignorant about the reality of poor people’s lives. It’s not his finest moment as a political thinker or campaigner.

Land sparing

Probably the key claim in Regenesis is that we need to spare land for nature – that is, concentrate the production of food and fibre on as small an area of high-yielding land as possible so that we can leave as much of the rest as possible for the wild things. A lot of the book’s wider arguments hang on the plausibility of that claim.

How plausible is it? Well, at least a bit. But I question whether George pulls it off sufficiently to bear the weight of his argument. For one thing, there are issues with the supporting evidence. With an intimidating string of research references George claims that farming is the greatest cause of habitat destruction, wildlife loss and extinction (p.90). But on closer inspection, some of these references appear to be arguing that future expansion of farming into hotspots of biodiversity is a major threat, which isn’t quite the same thing. And two of the references seem to be the same one, referenced twice.

A forgivable error, no doubt. But generally, while the near 100 pages of references in the book make for a great resource, I fear they also create the misleading sense that the book’s contentions reflect nailed on certainties in the research literature and not, as is inevitably the case, a personal selection from a more variegated corpus that buttresses a specific line of argument.

An approach that others emphasize more than George is ‘land sharing’ – devising forms of land use amenable both to wildlife and to humans and the organisms they farm. George does make some nods to it (see especially p.91). But I don’t think he characterizes the issues well. Miles King pointed out on this blog a while back that George and many others in the rewilding movement who emphasize land sparing fit into a top-down control school of ecological thought, which I’d caricature as ‘predators good, herbivores bad’. But there are other schools of thought, including the bottom-up argument I’d caricature as ‘plants rule, herbivores and predators follow’, which is more open to land sharing.

This all gets a bit technical and I’ll write more about it another time. For now, I just think it’s worth noting that the science around this isn’t quite as settled as you’d think from reading George’s book. Indeed, there are those who question the whole sparing-sharing duality.

All the same, as you look around most of our urban and agricultural landscapes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’re giving the wild things a hard time. Indeed, it seems we’re in the midst of a mass extinction of geological scale caused by humans, so something has certainly gone badly wrong. But is it just the logic of advanced agriculture, as George implies (p.198)? I’d argue instead that it’s the logic of advanced, fossil-fuelled, grain-based capitalism – and if that’s so it suggests different solutions to George’s one of a vegan, urban-industrial, land-sparing food system in which most people are alienated from the production of their food.

Even if you incline to George’s land-sparing view, I want to point out a remarkable assumption in Regenesis. Effectively, George argues that because all farming causes at least some wildlife loss, then the optimal response is to have no farming. Despite a few weak concessions to land sharing, he doesn’t entertain much possibility for trade-off or compromise – less or better farming for less wildlife loss. Instead, the book proceeds inexorably to its conclusion that humanity must extract itself as far as possible from its day-to-day implication with nature for creating its livelihood. But even if it’s true that all forms of farming are wildlife stressors, it doesn’t follow that a farm free world is the optimum response. It’s a curiously non-ecological argument. Give me Aldo Leopold’s land ethic any day in preference to it – humans are plain members and citizens of the biotic community. Which means trampling over some of its other members. But plainly.

An agricultural puzzle

In most parts of the world, people developed low-input agricultures in premodern or preindustrial times with better ‘land ethical’ claims than we, their successors, can command. These agricultures were marvellously varied, but a common enough approach was mixed ley farming – building soil and fertility with grass and grassland herbs (most importantly legumes such as clover) which were usually grazed by ruminants, then disturbing the soil in some way (for example, ploughing and harrowing) to establish high-output but fertility-draining and soil-draining crops for human consumption, before starting the cycle again.

This is ‘mixed’ farming because it mixes livestock, fodder crops and human crops, and ‘ley’ farming because it involves temporary grasses and herbs, or leys. Livestock in these systems are usually cleverly integrated as tappers and cyclers of nutrients that complement rather than compete with human food production – what Simon Fairlie calls ‘default livestock’ in his brilliant book Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

Many of the problems associated with modern farming that George diagnoses in the first part of Regenesis have arisen from the abandonment of mixed ley farming and other traditional low input agricultures with the advent of synthetic fertilizer, heavy mechanization and long-distance trade for routine food commodities. These jointly potentiated the modern livestock and biofuels industries that compete with the production of food for humans, and with wildlands for non-humans. George critiques these industries in Regenesis, but not the underlying technologies that potentiate them. In fact, these technologies are critical for his own preferred approaches, which surely rings some alarm bells.

He must know about the case for default livestock and mixed organic ley farming, because it’s laid out in intricate detail in Simon’s book, and on its cover there’s a fulsome endorsement from George himself (incidentally, Simon has a review of George’s book in the next issue of The Land which will be worth a read). Yet this case gets barely a mention in Regenesis. Instead, George offers a strange view of organic farming as somehow being about raising lots of livestock to accumulate manure for fertilizer, rather than being about building grazed leys into crop rotations. And he says almost nothing about mixed farming – a notable exception being on p.86 where he writes “So livestock, even when integrated into mixed farming systems…are powerful drivers of ecological destruction” – quite a non-sequitur, because he’s demonstrated no such thing in his preceding discussion. It’s almost as if he’s aware that low input mixed ley systems with default livestock are the Achilles heel of his whole argument, so he brushes them aside.

Actually, he does talk about such systems at some length in his discussions of Iain Tolhurst’s market garden, and Ian Wilkinson’s farming project in Oxfordshire. In the case of Iain Tolhurst (universally known in UK growing circles as Tolly), the complicating factor is that although what Tolly’s doing in effect is mixed organic ley farming, he doesn’t have any livestock. But he does grow leys in his veg rotation, which he then ploughs up in what he calls “a cycle of exploitation and regeneration: break it, mend it, break it, mend it” (p.108).

That’s an apt description of the mixed organic ley farming ethos. In Tolly’s case, on a moderately small modern market garden, it makes sense to do it without livestock, and to use a tractor for managing the ley by mowing, ploughing and so forth. On a preindustrial farm, that work would be done by cattle and/or horses. Which raises a point usually missed in the ‘livestock as inefficient land use’ argument. The flipside is that livestock are a very efficient complement to human labour for managing the larger farmed landscape with a minimum of human effort in situations without fossil fuels or other sources of cheap and abundant energy. In present economic circumstances, as Tolly reports in George’s book, the maths favour relatively fossil-fuel intensive, stock-free market gardening. But maths can change. I suspect mixed farms with default livestock will make a comeback.

Tolly is one of several agricultural and horticultural pioneers whose exploits George examines sympathetically in the middle chapters of the book, but ultimately finds wanting – not always for convincing reasons. The one example where he remains uncritical is the attempt to breed high-yielding perennial grains at the Land Institute in Kansas. He cites this Land Institute link to claim its breeders have achieved perennial grain yields reaching 50-70% of the yields from annual grains. I couldn’t find this figure from the link, but perhaps it’s there somewhere. This Land Institute link from two years ago suggests a figure of 20-30%, which seems more in keeping with the historical trajectory of its breeding work. Given George’s enthusiasm for land sparing, it’s odd that he’s so enthusiastic about such a low-yielding crop. Perhaps, like the plant breeders at the Land Institute, he’s confident this shortfall will be made up in time, bemoaning “it’s ridiculous that this crucial technology has been left to a small non-profit with limited funds” (p.227).

But it hasn’t. There have been many efforts to breed high-yielding perennial dry grains, which have basically all failed for probably insurmountable ecological reasons. For sure, there’s something to be said even for low-yielding perennial grains, and it’s worth having a few institutions working to improve their yields without compromising longevity – provided the prospects and the consequences aren’t oversold. Perhaps the true appeal of perennial grains lies in its business-as-usual economics – a more nature-friendly form of farming but one that doesn’t require more hands in the garden and fits easily within the modernist ‘maths’ of combine harvesters and teeming cities.

Ultimately, of course, Regenesis takes land sparing to the logical conclusion of factory-fermented nourishment. As I see it, there are multiple problems with this. There’s the nitrogen and energy requirements (prodigious amounts of scarce low-carbon electrical energy will be needed to synthesize the gloop, rather than the free solar energy tapped by farmers). There’s the final surrender to corporate interests. There’s the likelihood that rich people will continue to demand proper meat, grains, coffee, tropical fruit and so on, so that the gloop becomes another poverty-entrenching technology like golden rice, with less land-sparing impact than supposed. And there’s the final alienation from nature that will probably undermine the entire point of it. Maybe the upside is that Regenesis opens all these issues up for debate. I just wish its author could have laid the implications out a bit more even-handedly.

Of maths, modernism and grandmothers

But alas I think he’s been carried away by ecomodernism. When I wrote my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto some years ago, George engaged positively with me about it and I’ll always be grateful for the boost he gave my writing back then. But in the years since he’s drifted ever closer to embracing the creed, and now seems largely signed up to it, barring a largely gestural commitment to small-scale farmers and agroecology.

The strongest ecomodernist argument against low-input agrarian localism is that it’s too little too late to address the prodigious global crises of our times. I wrote a while back along these lines that George seemed to have become a kind of ‘last chance saloon’ ecomodernist, embracing big, bold, solutionist technologies out of desperation, because small-scale localism seemed inadequate to the task. I can appreciate the pull of this argument, even though I don’t agree with it. But reading Regenesis makes it clear I was wrong. George now seems to have embraced the ecomodernist credo in its own terms, calling for “bold, complex and holistic” thinking (p.199) which he imputes only to an urban-industrial solutionism he implausibly supposes will eliminate farming altogether. His now hardened, anti-rural, anti-agrarian, pro-industrial technophilia is simply incapable of attaching those labels to low-input, job-rich rural agroecology.

I’ve always felt there’s an irony in the ‘modernism’ of ecomodernism to which its proponents seem oblivious. The word ‘modernism’ doubtless sounds positive to many, but not to everyone. Modernism is the industrial and colonial extermination of pre-existing lifeworlds. It’s Max Weber’s iron cage of rationalization and bureaucracy. It’s a self-conscious and self-important break with a deprecated past. It’s the joyless, accumulative logic of a Thomas Gradgrind or a Captain MacWhirr, the “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” of Marx and Engels. And it’s this, from George Monbiot:

It’s time we became obsessed by numbers. We need to compare yields, compare land uses, compare the diversity and abundance of wildlife, compare emissions, erosion, pollution, costs, inputs, nutrition, across every aspect of food production (p.225)

Readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to a bit of bean counting myself, and I don’t disagree with this in principle. But the world is a complex place, and numbers contain dark powers of oversimplification. Quantifying all these parameters in the way George suggests requires us to make models of vastly complex social and biological worlds that can never be definitive. Numbers can help refine our questions, but they don’t give us unequivocal answers, unless we mistake our models of reality for the reality of our models.

So, given George’s increasingly visceral dislike of farmers, farming and ruralism, his unwillingness to entertain any middle ground between human and non-human land uses, his conviction that urbanism is a mathematical reality rather than a historical accomplishment, his embrace of modernism’s iron cage, and his influential voice in the media, I fear for where this taste for quantification will lead. I imagine it would be pretty easy for some take-away-the-number-you-first-thought-of bit of modelling to ‘prove’ that the little bit of countryside I’ve lived, worked and dreamed on for the past twenty years would be better off subjected to compulsory government purchase and turned over to rewilding, while the vegetables we grow are replaced by ‘sustainably-sourced’ ones imported from god knows where, and I’m forced to take my chances eating ‘precision’ fermented gloop in the city.

If that were to happen, the bit of land where I live and work would become, literally, the hill I would die on.

For this reason, I think it’s really, really inadvisable for George to write Gradgrindian sentences like this: “The transition is likely to happen, however fiercely the defenders of the old dispensation resist it: it appears to possess an inexorable economic logic” (p.210). It’s inadvisable because there’s no such thing as ‘an inexorable economic logic’, there are just political games with winners and losers – a point the old George Monbiot once understood. And it’s really, really inadvisable because it’s basically an invitation to a form of class war. In that eventuality, I’ll be on the opposite side to George, making common cause with farmers, growers, preppers, hunters and rural dwellers who in other circumstances I might dispute with. But sides, like quantitative social models, reduce the complexities of the world. I hope it won’t come to that. So many farmers are impoverished, demoralized and unfairly scapegoated for society’s wider sins. There are better ways to herald systemic change than this.

Yet in the very chapter where George makes his pitch for farmfree food and incites his war against rural society, he nicely writes an implicit counternarrative that undermines his case. This, I think, is the real crux of the book and the one I want to amplify.

It comes in an amusing section where George takes Michael Pollan to task for his admonition not to eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. He does this by detailing the grim diet of his own grandmother, who he says would be a great-great-great grandmother to most of those alive today (a clever gloss, since his grandmother’s lifetime coincided with two world wars, which surely had some bearing on the unappetizing menus that formed her). Still, I broadly agree with George – there’s no reason in principle not to embrace new foods. But the kicker comes in George’s obvious fondness and nostalgia for what he learned from his grandmother:

She was a tough, skilled and knowledgeable countrywoman, connected to the land, who caught or collected some of her food, and made her meals from scratch….staying with her was the highlight of my school holidays. She taught me to make tiny imitations of insects from scraps of fur and feathers, and use them to deceive fish in the river behind her house …. In August and September, we gathered mushrooms … She taught me to watch, to listen, to name the birds and flowers (p.200-1)

There’s a sense here of a woman emplaced in a natural landscape that she knew and took notice of because she partially provided for herself from it, and of a boy who learned from her how to see and act in it, and how to love it. The irony is that the boy has become a man where that love leads him to negate future possibilities for such emplacement. Future grandmothers raised on industrial gloop will have no parallel knowledge to pass on, spelling yet further danger to the natural world.

There’s nothing wrong with new foods as such, provided they’re nurtured in food cultures that draw the eater into the wider pulse of the local ecology. If they don’t, then the natural world and the humans it supports are in danger – and this is true if we’re talking about tahini from a supermarket jar or fermented gloop from a nearby factory. We don’t need re-genesis, but a de-urbanizing re-exodus to places where we can create such food cultures. The real lesson from George Monbiot’s grandmother, I’d submit, is not the narrowness of her diet but the breadth of her knowledge. Similarly, when George fulminates against petting farms for selling a fantasy image of what actual livestock farming is like, he neglects the possibility that they’re popular precisely because they offer people a sense of real, economic connection to animals and to livelihood-making that has almost been lost, and that his own proposals would finally snuff out for good. I doubt that will lead where he wants.

132 thoughts on “From regenesis to re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case for agrarian localism

  1. Thank you for this review, which seems fair to me (but then I generally agree with you and not with George Monbiot).

    Lots of people already eat and drink factory-fermented food in the form of yoghurt and tempeh and beer (preferably not mixed together, worst smoothie ever). One thing I always wonder when people advocate for inventive new factory-produced foods is… well, what is the feedstock for that? Because if it’s soybeans or almonds or dairy, you may as well just eat the food instead of the factory-produced stuff. I mean, Quorn already exists, but they still have to feed glucose and nitrogen into the vats they culture it in, and that has to come from somewhere, and I daresay it won’t be from land that’s very wildlife-friendly. And the end product isn’t even shelf-stable like dried beans. Unless our factory-formed food comes from human sewage, I’m not sure where cities are going to get the biomass for it; and while I don’t intrinsically object to eating something that was once excrement, I find it hard to imagine a factory process for dealing with it that is safer and less energy intensive than, well, a small farm…

    In terms of the bean-counting, I often turn to, or at least think of, the Pareto principle if I’m not sure exactly how the proportions of things should run. If I could self-provision 80% of my food (whether by weight or calories) and import the other 20%, I would be pretty happy. And if I were allowed to sell my allotment produce (and wanted to do so), I think I would be aiming for using 20% of my land to grow specialist, high-value crops to sell, and 80% of it for that part of my diet that I self-provision. And it works iteratively… of the 20% of food I buy, I would aim for 16% to be from relatively local sources, leaving 4% of my total for things like cinnamon which can’t grow here; of the 20% of production earmarked for sale/export/barter, I’d aim to meet local needs with 16% of it and perhaps further specialise into very high-value crops like saffron or truffles or medicinal herbs for the other 4%. It’s never that simple of course — I might get an excellent nut crop one year and nothing but squirrels the next, but summer truffles grown on those hazels might be just fine in the squirrel years, and it’s hard to divide up land clearly like that if I’m harvesting the nuts and the truffles from the same area and also using the hazel coppice for various other purposes. But the big picture “grow 80% of what my household eats” seems like a) an attainable goal, if not one that I can attain without livestock just yet and b) a resilient goal, insofar as if trade became much more difficult, well, I could probably get by for quite a while on that 80%, and if my entire neighbourhood was flooded or burned, I might be able to grab a few jars of the higher-value stuff, or have enough money in the bank from selling it, to be able to set up again elsewhere without having to start completely from scratch. And maybe it would actually work out to be something like 70:30 or 85:15, I don’t know; but 80:20 seems like as good a starting point to aim for as any. Maybe in terms of time spent tending crops it would be the other way around: 20% of my time on potatoes and squash and beans, 80% on medicinal herbs for local use and spices for export. If so, I would certainly be prioritising low-attention crops (like, um, potatoes and squashes and beans) in my edible staples, and that might mean that things which will grow locally but require a bit more care (tomatoes and peppers?) would be things I would buy locally… But I wonder what it would look like for a town to provide 80% of its own calories, or a city, or a country. Maybe for a city that *would* look like at least supplementing with fermented/fungal gloop made from woodchips or lawn clippings or whatever (I doubt most cities have enough trees for this specific example to work), and for a town it would look like pickled cabbage and corned beef and bread baked in the local baker’s oven, and for a village, well, the bread would be baked at home and there would be a lot more Jerusalem artichokes involved.

    And then (and this is, really, well into tangent-land) I wonder about whether there are other observed phenomena that belong to both nature and mathematics which we should be thinking about in our horticulture or in our household economic planning or what have you; things like the Golden Section, or the Fibonacci sequence, or indeed iterative fractal patterns. My (admittedly very casual) reading of various permaculture literature gives me the impression that it puts great stock in biomimicry and following the patterns of nature, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen those mathematical concepts mentioned.

    As for inexorable economic logic, I’m going to recommend Ursula K Le Guin for the second time today, in a quote from her speed at the 2014 National Book Awards (US):

    “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
    (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards-speech for more)

    Thank you for your words.

  2. PS my other grudge against factory-fermented food is that it seems so backwards in terms of the technology. I mean, people actively enjoy cooking! People ferment cabbage at home as a hobby! Bread makers are a thing, I even own one myself (and it’s a lot more efficient than using the rather leaky oven I would like my landlord to replace)! I know multiple people who own 3D printers (all of whom favour fully-biodegradable bioplastics over more harmful materials, yay)! People buy Sodastream machines and make up all kinds of interesting drinks! One of the most popular television shows is a baking contest!

    If we’re going to have some kind of very high-tech fermented or fungal novel food products, why wouldn’t it also take the form of a countertop model where people can play with various parameters and ingredients and create their own custom FuudChunx? Why does it have to be from a big factory, with all the transport cost and so on? That’s all… so last century.

    • “factory-based fermentation of food to feed humanity, ”
      And where does the energy come from to run these mega factories ? Fermenting anything needs prodigious amounts of energy ,
      Then there is the ” goop ” ,would it provide a balanced diet or be like old time prisons , bread and water / goop and water , ?
      Animals are also part of nature , I see the UK has reintroduce the methadone producing bison back into a forest somewhere , the beaver they reintroduced will be busy building dams to drown out trees and cause more methaine production , plus the wild boar that will really enjoy the forest fauna and flora .
      I totally agree that mixed farming is the way to go , rotations of species that build fertility plus the old perminent lay lay for herb production , ( cattle were healthier when they had a herb mix diet ) . And just as a side the local big box store had little meat for sale , the expensive t bone stuff was there but who can afford it ,BUT the in the “fake meat ” section there was in abundance , the decision between fake meat and no meat was taken and no meat won .

      • I imagine the fake meat has a longer shelf-life, and also doesn’t sell out as fast.

        One of the difficulties with goop of any description is that our understanding of human nutritional needs is still incomplete. It’s really quite hard to replicate the nutritional effects of a varied diet.

  3. Anyone who claims to know the history of England and cannot admit that people were forced from the land into cities against their will, is simply being dishonest.

  4. And anyone who does admit the land clearances, but argues that they were a good idea, is not only apologizing for some really nasty sociopaths, but also a fool.
    Those sociopaths have no loyalty to their useful idiots.

  5. I’d like to do some followup to Kathryn’s squarely hitting the nail with “what is the feedstock for that?”

    Science is useful for doing many cool things, but regardless of how scientifically sophisticated we are, we can’t do anything without matter and energy. Sure, with enough cheap and clean energy one can take carbon and oxygen out of the air, electrolyze water for hydrogen and combine the three for unlimited amounts of carbohydrate feedstock for the gloop. I’m sure with enough energy resources and scientific savvy it can be done, but what about the energy?

    The problem is always getting enough energy. Right now we get most of it from fossil fuels and we know how that’s working out. The ecomodernist would respond that we need to build a gazillion nuclear power plants, rebuild the entire transportation system to run on electricity, revamp all industrial, heating and air conditioning systems to run on electricity and add enough extra capacity to substitute for all that solar energy now being soaked up by human food plants. The green new deal folks would second all of that except the food part, only substituting solar and wind for the nuclear.

    The problem with changing an energy system is energy. Where in the world are we going to get the energy to replace all the fossil fuel energy systems around the world with anything else, be it solar/wind or nuclear? If Monbiot could answer that, he might deserve some serious attention. Of course solar and wind are not likely to be compatible with the re-wilding he wants, so we’re right back to nuclear. How’s it going to happen?

    I’m sorry George, it’s just too late to turn to ecomodernism even if we all really wanted to live in a concrete box and eat synthetic food. The energy transition is not going to happen because we don’t have enough energy to make it happen. We don’t even have enough energy to keep business as usual happening right now and it’s only going to get worse. Monbiot should try out his “regenesis” plan on German and British political and industrial leaders this coming winter when they will be scrambling to keep the lights on and keep granny from freezing to death. They won’t give him two seconds for “regenesis”.

    He might find a more receptive audience in Elon Musk, who wants to execute a “regenesis” plan on Mars. Mars or Earth, both Monbiot and Musk are living in fantasy worlds.

    • I don’t believe current British political leaders will do anything much to try and keep the lights on, I expect they’ll just allow the poor to freeze in the dark.

      The reason I think this is related to the number of candles our church has given to soup kitchen and food bank guests whose electricity was out. The nine-day memorial candles don’t give much heat or light, but they last a good long time if you aren’t using them 24/7 like they are designed for, and they’re pretty safe. And it’s enough light maybe for your kid to get their homework done, or to be able to see which foodbank tins you’re going to open.

      • ! the insight into current poverty levels given by your final paragraph is horrifying. I didn’t even imagine …

        • It’s absolutely grim. And it’s not just the effects of the pandemic, though that did see a sharp rise in the number of people needing our support. Things have been getting steadily worse for the poorest here since around 2010. My household has hosted our fair share of couchsurfers, too, in addition to the more formal support I offer in my soup kitchen and food bank contributions.

  6. “The energy transition is not going to happen because we don’t have enough energy to make it happen. ”
    EXACTLY !
    There are millions of barrels of oil under West Texas but the eroi don’t add up it is not worth drilling ! All the inflated numbers of reserves are just smoke and mirrors , even attempting the tech revolution is just wasting we have , chasing a dream .
    It needs a long hard look at how we can stretch out what we have to build a world that needs less of just about everything , perhaps harnesing the technoutopians to a plough would give them a idea how useful draft animals are .

  7. What a great article, many thanks!

    Techno futurist dystopians haven’t thought it through properly, in my view. All the artificial substances that make up the infrastructure have to come from somewhere. Hi tech solutionism really just continues the same story of externalising pollution to the poorer edges of global civilisation. There was a kid’s movie called Wall-E that portrayed such a world. Robots, mines, waste, and humans squeezing to fit in ever-smaller, soulless cubicles, making room for it all.

    The biggest miscalculation on the part of the techno futurist is that people have zero motivation to work towards such a future. Society is lethargic to change because the attractive alternative has not yet been exposed. Only a tiny minority is attracted to creepy AI stuff and for all we know they may all be extraterrestrials.

    Rural agrarian sustainable smallholding, using skills and aptitudes developed over many generations, comes much more naturally to the vast majority of humans. In direct contrast with the popular portrayal, subsistence smallholder agriculture in fact represents a pinnacle in Earth-human relations. The smallholder is CEO, scientist, labourer, creative designer, on an ever growing multi-generational project to improve the land.

    The energy of sun, water, seed, soil, animal, plant and microbe is immense. We are confronted with a big challenge, to navigate a transition to a sustainable society capable of supporting our massive human global population. It is a very important time for humans to go back to the land, learn how to gain sustenance efficiently from a small piece of land.

    We can calculate the approximate carrying capacity of different countries around the world based on a maximum density of, say, a 5 person household on a minimum 1 hectare smallholding. Then exclude non-arable lands and healthy set-asides for actively managed but non residential wild forests and fields. And a small but realistic amount of industry and other infrastructure.

    My results broadly pointed to western Europe, Japan, southeast Asia, parts of South Asia, the Middle East to be overpopulated. To the contrary, Australia, Russian Federation are well below their sustainable human carrying capacity (SHCC) Internal migration within the Americas, Africa and other parts of Asia could balance population there.

    Within the UK, it appeared that Ireland, Wales and Scotland are at 100% SHCC and that England is at 400% SHCC. While these might be uncomfortable things to think about, I believe it is important. The rise of ecomodernism and the destructive Extinction rebellion is symptom of a cornered people. English people correctly sense that they are in an increasingly precarious situation. From my perspective, George’s proposal and XR’s ideology feel like they are trying to stifle the human population. In a tragic and macabre way, is this perhaps rational if there are four times too many people?

    In my view, no. It is better to maximise carrying capacity by implementing rural sustainable smallholdings. And then to engage international diplomacy, ensuring equitable land access for all, even if migration is necessary.

    These are all very rough approximations and of course urban populations can still exist in a sustainable future. However the privilege of not providing one’s own sustenance is proportional to the ability to provide genuine value to primary producers. I question whether much of the accounting, legal, banking, investing, real estate that currently enriches England will still be valued in the future.

    But that’s just my opinion. Time will tell how it all plays out. I have to say though, where I live in Australia there are so, so, so many beef cattle fields being used at minimum productivity. I get the impression this land could happily support tens of millions more people than it currently does. If done correctly, it would vastly improve the biodiversity and water/carbon retaining qualities of the landscape. I suppose if you don’t mind the heat that might be an option for some of you English?

    Anyway, thanks for a really interesting article. Wishing everyone the best, and working towards equitable land access for all, so that anyone who wants to build a sustainable smallholding can do so….. ‍

  8. In many ways, there is no real contest between self-assembling solar-powered food generators (plants) vs. electric “food” manufacturing processes.

    Thanks for the book review.

  9. Brilliant! Brightened my urban day with the clarity of argument, infused with passion. On solid ground defending that hill.

  10. Monbiot’s rapture about Iain Tolhurst came up in a regenerative grazing group I lurk in.

    Here is a video of Tolhurst speaking.He says he uses 400 cubic metres of woodchips on his 8 hectares. Tolhurst popped up in a market gardening group, and I confirmed with him that this is the rate he is using.

    As an aside about magical thinking, here is a tweetHere is a tweet of someone saying Tolly uses 1mm of woodchip, then quoting Monbiot. At 11:18 in the video above Tolly says he uses 5mm.

    So, 400 m2 for eight hectares—how much is that to provide fertility for croplands?

    In British Columbia, where I live, agricultural soils of Classes 1, 2, and 3 total 1,467,267 hectares.
    https://www.alc.gov.bc.ca/…/agriculture_capability…

    The actually cropped land of non pasture, non hay crops in BC seem to be 209,300 hectares according to this somewhat unclear page.
    https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/…/p1/prov/prov-59-eng.htm
    A good chunk of the rest of the prime agricultural land in BC is under the urban development of the Lower Mainland.

    British Columbia harvests 43% of Canada’s roundwood.
    https://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/pubwarehouse/pdfs/39336.pdf
    And BC annual harvest is 75,000,000 m³.
    https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/docs/mr/mr113/harvest.htm

    So, BC has a major forestry industry, yet BC’s entire logging industry is only 88% of what would be needed to dress BC’s agricultural soils with composted woodchips.

    And to cover only the currently worked croplands—with which BC only produces 43% of the vegetables we eat—would require ~15% of our total forest output.
    https://foodsecurecanada.org/sites/foodsecurecanada.org/files/BCFoodSelfReliance_Report.pdf

    This forest output is of course already doing things, like building houses and furniture and going to newsprint and toilet paper, so its redirection will be noticed.

    And if we were to provide the fertility required to actually grow the veg we eat, we would need a third of our total forest production. Again, we are a large part of Canada’s forestry sector and a full third of that forest production would have to go just for veg for our 13% of Canada’s population.

    The numbers for Canada are not easy to tease out, but back of the envelope it seems like we would need to cut three times as many trees to keep Canada in veg. And we are a heavily forested nation!

    All of this wood is of course cut, processed and transported with fossil fuels, so whoever says this is a sustainable future would do better to point the sunshine pouring out of their ass at an array of solar panels.

    • The power to chip the woodchips is the thing that bothers me most about anything woodchip based. I’m sure I’ve seen a pedal-powered “mulcher” somewhere online; but in general, taking coppice trimmings (not, I imagine, a large part of British Columbia’s forestry output) and turning them into woodchips using hand tools is incredibly labour-intensive.

      • Yes, me too (about the power requirement).
        We have plenty of weedy woody growth on our place, so one time I borrowed a 5 horsepower (3700 watt) chipper, and it was basically useless.

        Now consider that your sustained human power output will be something like 100 watts. Though we do gain some advantage from long bones as levers, but not nearly enough.

        The fastest method for me to get wood chips is to trade favors with a friend who operates a tree service.

        The least energy method is to heap the partially cut branches in a pile and wait 3 or 4 years. They break up really easily then.

        • And, of course, wood is much more easily chipped after making biochar from it; using coppice trimmings to make biochar is probably a good option if growing edible fungi on it or rotting it down slowly are both too slow.

          But goodness, the ready-chipped stuff we get delivered to the allotment for free is convenient to work with!

          • Bruce Bacon created some great growing soil by mixing wood chips into sugar sand (think a beach) but it took 10 years. Isn’t a lot of nitrogen required to break down the wood chips ?

          • Greg, nitrogen is easy enough if you use some fresh grass clippings or some urine to help things along a bit. Or coffee grounds, for that matter.

            Yes, it requires some nitrogen to break down wood chips, but when the bacteria that do this die, that nitrogen is released back into the soil.

          • I’m thinking more along a field scale, say 12 rods by 12 rods. IIRC, Bruce had about 20 acres he had built back. Even one acre would take a lot of coffee grounds and grass clippings.

          • On a field scale my instinct would be to either use animals or some kind of nitrogen-fixing cover crop. Access to pelleted chicken manure to apply with the woodchip would probably do the trick, but that’s not exactly something that will be easy to get hold of in a small farm future.

            The other option is to use the wood chips as a mulch. My understanding is that they only hog the nitrogen at the point where they are in contact with the soil.

            Of course, if what you have is 20 acres of sand that nothing grows in, “dump woodchips on it, wait 10 years” may be just as efficient as any other approach available.

      • I would worry about the likely mineral imbalance this would likely bring over time. Wood chips are largely potassium. Potassium will promote growth but what kind? Carbohydrate / sugars. If you are going for nutrient density and not just luscious green growth you need balance. Steve Solomon has made this case in his book “The Intelligent Gardener”, citing William Albrecht’s work on soil mineral balance and health. If you want your teeth to stay in your mouth you need balance soil.

        Anyway, Tolhurst seems proud of the high levels of potassium shown in his soil tests. He goes on about the free soil testing he has had for years but doesn’t go into any detail on the results. Would be interesting to see.

        Here is western Washington state we have no shortage of wood chips from tree surgeons and I have several “no till/low till” farmer friends that use an even more intense version of this woodchip approach. The basically pile it on inches thick not even composted. I have seem some of their early soil tests and no issues yet but what will it be in 10 years? (I will admit the clean weed free paths and beds and little to no tillage are tempting.)

        So first of all I am with Kathryn that the supply of chips in the future we know is coming will be small. We will no longer have 40 HP chippers that can reduce a 6in limb to chips in seconds. Nor the trucks to deliver the cu yards to your farm. So I have never seen it as a sustainable option.

        Add in the possibility for nutrient imbalances in the only food you will have available and I dont think I would take this approach in the run up, knowing that the effects of those wood chips are going to be there for a very long time.

        I will add though that I do think they are on to something based on the fungal improvement this would definitely bring to the soil and that ramial wood is definitely something to be leverage in orchard and other settings. I guess like all things in farming, there are trade offs to your trade offs.

        • I mean, this is why I add other nutrient sources to my compost; kitchen waste (including eggshells and bones, and including things grown by people other than me), leaves, spent coffee grounds, and whatever else I can get my hands on really. Kelp and molasses are currently still widely available and fairly high in trace minerals. Ideal would be processing human waste for the garden but I suspect most people won’t do that until they really have to. We don’t have the facilities for dealing with solid waste. So woodchips (which arrive for free as the tree surgeons get rid of the lid waste) are a substantial part of my strategy, but not the whole thing by any means.

          I am dealing with allotment plots that have been systematically mined of nutrients, on heavy clay that compacts (and sometimes floods) in the rain and sets like cement in dry weather, so my priority is incorporating organic material.

          I’ve had substantial (for our household — up to 2.5kg in one go from a small patch) harvests of wine cap mushrooms from woodchipped paths and beds, and the plants don’t seem to be suffering.

          • The potential issue is having too much of some nutrients, potassium in this case, and not enough of others. You can grow food with an imbalanced soil. People do it all the time. Plants are pretty forgiving and can grow in a wide variety of conditions but they may be “growing” more sugars and less proteins for example. So nutrient density can vary widely.

            There was an article in Acres magazine in March of this year that showed the nutrient levels in beets from four properly mineralized farms vs USDA organic and conventional store bought beets. The variability of the various farms/sources is quite wide ranging, e.g. zinc from one of the balanced farm was 500% higher than the average! All balanced farms beat the conventional and “organic” farms by pretty wide margins. Side note: the conventional and “California organic” were almost the same and always the lowest. Maybe explaining the previous studies that have concluded there is little nutritional difference between organic and conventional. It’s an excellent article if you can find it.

            I want to grow the most nutritious food I can. So I test my soil at least every two years and blend my fertilizers to strive for better balance. All while cover cropping (sometimes mostly weeds!:) when I can, using my own compost but sparingly and using foliars when appropriate.

            As mentioned I have friends who farm with loads of chips. It works. They grow great stuff. I just worry that over time there could be more and more of an imbalance that would be hard to correct and would impact the nutritional quality of the food.

            Anyway, if you can afford a test I would get one. Not only will it help you understand the potential nutritional issues it can possibly help you “lighten” that compacted clay by getting magnesium and calcium ratio balanced.

            In any event using large amounts of wood chips in our “small farm future” is a non starter for the other reasons we’ve mentioned.

            Best of luck!

          • Hi Josh

            I can’t fathom a small farm future that brings me the kind of infrastructure for the soil tests you’re talking about, let alone importing rock dust (or whatever) every year to “balance” the soil nutrients. So, I will stick with going for the highest diversity I can.

            It almost sounds more like you’re doing fancy hydroponics (but with soil as the medium) than actually building healthy soil. Perhaps this is necessary if you don’t have a closed loop system incorporating human waste; we don’t either.

            If adding too much woodchip is the source of the imbalance, well, I guess I’m also adding too much coffee, too much leaf mould, too much grass clippings, too much manure, and so on. As my priority is building up soil bulk (due to flooding from quite a high water table relative to the surface of the plot), I suspect I also need to add “too much” biochar, as all the rest of this organic matter does shrink quite a lot.

  11. Excellent review. Some of the aspects you draw out reminded me of Monbiot’s most recent opinion piece sparked by the latest heatwave, in which he again puts his weight behind ‘the numbers’, concluding:
    “Let’s build our campaign for systemic change towards the critical 25% threshold of public acceptance, beyond which, a range of scientific studies suggests, social tipping happens.”
    Go figure.

  12. Is Mr Monbiot an economist ?

    No economic model takes energy into account. Where does the energy come from to power his urban regenesis (which will look a lot like the cities we have today) ? Solar panels in the countryside will last about 30 years. Nuclear power plants need to be refueled every 2 years.

    As Kathryn asks, where does the input for the fermenter come from ? I can’t help but wonder if his Grandma might become part of the fermented glop.

  13. I was wondering when/if you were going to review this book, Chris – and hoping it would be soon, so I could send the review to those of my acquaintance who have been taken in by it. I have not read Monbiot since wasting my money on The Age of Consent (2003) with its ludicrous proposal for global government, and its attacks on Colin Hines’ advocacy for localism. So I see a consistency between that work and his latest. Both are essentially pro-industrialist, and demonstrate an inability to see that this is the same as being pro-capitalist and pro-colonialist, despite Monbiot’s protestations to the contrary. As some of your other readers have noted, he has a very poor grasp of history, and the connections between politics, economics, and energy sources.

    I also find it odd that he lives in the countryside, and presumably eats good food, but wants or expects ‘the masses’ in the city to live on industrial gloop. (Which some of them are already doing, if they eat supermarket vegan products, which are a sad travesty of a sustainable and nourishing diet.)

    I hope it has not been too hot where you are, and would be interested in your thoughts on the connections between rising temperatures and the broken industrial model for food production.

  14. Thanks for the review Chris. George seems to like subverting nostalgia – he also recently targeted the whimsical presentation of farms in children’s literature.

    His own blindspot, the myth he approvingly reproduces, is the idea that Nature is external to Society – his vision of uninhabited ‘wild’ Nature looks like its apotheosis. Jason W Moore has written extensively on the way this myth has informed the development of capitalist society over the past five centuries, including the use of a host of symbolic abstractions – George’s numbers – used to homogenise and map out the world, creating Nature as something amenable to capitalist appropriation. Whatever his intentions, I fear George is playing the role of capital’s useful idiot here.

    You’re absolutely right to call him out on his ecomodernism – a line really must be drawn against his project lest it do more damage. Unfortunately he provides a vaguely left environmentalist validation to developments that can only benefit more authoritarian government and voracious profit-seeking.

    If he had his way people would end up herded into towns and cities, forcibly prevented from engaging with much of the extra-human world and completely dependent on the operations of industrialised suppliers for all the requirements for life. It is truly depressing to see the pipeline from green environmentalism to authoritarian ecomodernism working so well.

  15. Thanks, Chris, for an excellent critique.

    Your closing line of thought, and your note that there Monbiot’s logic is entirely non-ecological (viewing Sister Mother Earth primarily as a machine which needs to be tinkered with, rather than an organism which needs to be cared for to restore her health), is the best counter-argument to any ecomodernist who take the “urgency” train of thought. I’d argue that the cultural and spiritual crisis is far MORE urgent than the ecological and economic crisis with which it is intertwined. It would be a terrible thing for millions to starve (which of course, many already do); it would be an even more terrible thing for millions to live as spiritual slaves (which of course, many already do). Does Monbiot discuss how mathematical mega-modernity will “solve” the climbing rates depression, loneliness and suicide in the urbanized world? The primacy of the spiritual and virtuous life, especially as explored by Brave New World, comes to mind here.

    I wonder if Monbiot’s book, and others ecomodernist texts like it—both “Green” and ecosocialist—may read similar to the eugenicists of the early 20th century do in light of Nazism. Many eugenicists viewed themselves as enlightened progressives, deeply compassionate about the plight of the poor, yet taking a good hard look at what The Science and The Numbers had revealed about the genetic stock of the human race. (Chesterton had much to say about them in his day.) I’m sure Monbiot would never want to see farmers (“anti-wilders”?) gunned down by the military, nor illegal immigrants forced into slavery in the gloop factories. I’m sure that he would balk at mandated biochip implants for those who want to receive welfare or police drones tracking down the unvaccinated.

    Additionally, a materialist analysis of the dynamics of techno-modernity seems to disprove the possibility of abandoning rural extraction. The Industrial Growth System (whether capitalist or socialist) has always required an interlocking urban system (which contains the financial system and its managerial class, along with the factory system and its proletariat) and rural system (which contains the more regionalized extractive economy of both raw resources and food). Does Monbiot have a new theory of the never-before-accomplished feat of maintaining industrialism without rural extraction?

    Regardless, I doubt whether we could conjure the political will for any such attempt in either the U.S. and Europe. At least on my side of the Atlantic, there are far too many middle-class people who are formed by the pleasures of autonomy, whether genuinely human (gardening, hunting, or singing around a campfire) or bourgeois (driving a car on open roads or designing a suburban renovation). And a lot of the rural types pride themselves on owning guns. That’s why I suspect that instead of tyrannical ecomodernism coming from the Left, we’ll get it from the Right: a form of ecocidal nationalism which wants to siphon our last gasps of consumption from largely unregulated fossil fuels, all while building the “Fortress North” against climate refugees and forging national unity by war-mongering. The moderate Left will content itself to play Cassandra (prophesying the doom)—but never Oedipus (solving mystery and undoing the curse, no matter the cost)—until the very end.

    All said, if Monbiot wants to see any real efforts at “Regenesis”, he should have his agent work on a translation into Mandarin.

    • I looked up monbiot’s c.v He is a linguist by education , he knows nothing about farming , probably never shoveled sh1 t in his life !

      • No, iirc he has a biology/zoology degree from oxford. Anyway, enough science to have been the excellent envrionmental writer he was before he jumped the shark.

  16. Thanks for the comments, and apologies as usual for being slow to come back. Much to agree with … I’ll just respond with a few general remarks.

    Feedstock & energy for the gloop: I agree with the scepticism of many here about this. These are major reasons why the technology probably won’t scale up. But I wanted to focus on the political and cultural framing, which I think is the deeper underlying problem, rather than a more narrowly technical debate. George does address the feedstock & energy requirements in his discussion of gloop-making (Chapter 7). I’d recommend a read and I’d be interested in any thoughts. George is a bit vague about the feedstock, but suggests it would require a lot less land than is currently used agriculturally. Energetically, he calculates that to furnish all humanity’s protein requirements gloop-making would raise global electricity demand by 11%, against which one could offset reduced energy demand for normal multicellular agriculture. Along the lines suggested by some of you above, I do think this pretty much kills the idea compared to local low impact agriculture. Unfortunately, the commentariat hasn’t got that memo yet.

    Woodchip: when I was starting up as a grower a lot of people were championing Charles Dowding’s no till methods, but they involved importing compost so didn’t scale. Tolly, by contrast, was the closed loop guy, with his green manure/ley system, and that’s how I started out. So it’s kind of funny that there’s now a parallel critique of Tolly. Charles warned me that it’s hard enough being a commercial grower without being too picky about your soil/fertility approach, and I think he’s right. The problem is when these methods get amplified as the solution to the world’s problems. We’ve ended up opting for a min-till imported woodchip system plus organic matter from our site and urine from its residents and visitors. It doesn’t scale, but so long as we’re selling vegetables into the existing market system, I don’t care that much. I think it’s pretty benign ecologically. I don’t, however, shout about it as a generalizable solution.

    George reports that Tolly estimates he could produce his own woodchip if he gave 20% of his land over to trees (p.123). Thanks Ruben for your calculations on this matter. I will do a bit of (modernist) maths about this myself at some point and try to reach a few interim conclusions. About 40% of our holding comprises woodland. We haven’t used it for much in the way of woodchip inputs (except for chainsaw chippings in our compost toilets) but we’re thinking about that now. Agree with comments about the energetic issues around wood chipping. But maybe we’d have to offset them against those of ploughs, tractors, horses, oxen etc.

    Generally, I don’t think any of these clever agricultural ideas square the circle that ultimately will require most of us to work our local land and one way or another put back what we take from it. This particularly applies to all the elements plants need other than C, N and O. George reports Tolly as saying “the amount of minerals we export in food is actually quite low. It turns out you don’t need a huge lot of nutrients to grow a crop – you just need them in the right place at the right time. And for that to happen, you need the right soil biology” (p.106). I don’t think you can build a renewable culture on that base long-term.

    Candle politics: I’ll add my thanks to Martin’s for Kathryn’s grim illustrations of contemporary poverty. And likewise we find ourselves hosting people with various levels of housing need who probably wouldn’t be here if the government cared about providing everyone with the basics for a decent life. Yet, after 12 years of their crap, opinion polls suggest they’d only be narrowly pipped if there were a general election. So … we will soon need to come on to talking about politics and the unpromising basis for a small farm future discussed in Part 4 of my book.

    Climate change politics: thanks Kemble Wood for your remarks – always nice to get new commenters. Not quite sure why you think XR is destructive, though! On carrying capacity, perhaps I’ll come back to that soon … currently thinking about it in the light of Vaclav Smil’s latest book, which is an interesting complement to George’s. As to the Charlie Chester comments linked by Diogenes, well he’s certainly right that climate change has longevity. And thence a Greek link to Sean’s comments – thanks for Cassandra and Oedipus, I’ll think about that! And for the eugenics parallel – harsh, but maybe apposite.

    George Monbiot: background for those who don’t know. He’s not an economist, but he’s beginning to talk like one. I believe he studied zoology at university and then became a journalist. For a long time he’s been just about the only voice in the so called ‘mainstream media’ in Britain speaking with anything approaching the kind of radicalism that’s required about climate, biodiversity and social justice. So in my eyes he accumulated a lot of credit, but regrettably that pool is rapidly emptying. I think Christine’s and Andrew’s remarks are probably to the point regarding the road he’s travelling.

    Anyway, thanks again for the comments – including of course from those I haven’t named here, but all duly noted … especially the ones praising my review 🙂

    • I think the logic of the soil biology argument — which I understand as “well, plants need nutrients to grow, so plant matter contains those nutrients, so as long as you don’t leach it away or make it inaccessible you shouldn’t need mineral amendments” — has something going for it, but applying it just to woodchips is probably silly, because wood is really mostly just one type of tissue (unless you’re more of a splitter than I am), a plant can’t live if it’s only wood. I think this (in addition to nitrogen) might be part of why people get very finicky about ramial woodchips vs other kinds, but I suspect the solution is to not use *only* woodchips.

      Tangent alert:
      We’re having the lime trees at church coppiced soon (the tree surgeons have to apply to the council first because there’s a tree preservation order) and I’m trying to figure out how many tonnes of woodchip we can shift in a day by hand, because that’s how much we’ll be able to keep. The soil there is very poor indeed, and efforts to compost all the soup kitchen waste have… not worked out well (we only have small-ish bins, so things have to be cut up pretty small, but explaining that to all the volunteers didn’t happen and so there were things like entire rotten cauliflowers and so on in there, with nowhere near enough carbon material involved, and it was kindof disgusting and very disheartening to sort out… we’re still composting, but it consists of me pre-emptively looking at the “donated” fruit and veg once a week (some of the local greengrocers are using us more as a disposal service, I think) and removing and processing anything that really is too far gone to salvage and then adding shredded paper and whatever garden clippings are available, and this is not making enough compost to keep us going, but at least it’s possible to deal with it without immediately nipping into the vicarage for a shower), and I figure if I have several dumpy bags of woodchips (with some leaves in them and everything!) then a few years from now we’ll be in a better position, soil-wise, than we are now.

      11% global increase in electricity demand sounds almost do-able until you realise that electricity demand has basically never gone down, it increases year on year anyway by whatever percentage, and there’s no reason to think this will change if we’re suddenly getting our food from the gloop factories, so total demand will still only go up. This is part of the problem, of course: that growth is a percentage, rather than additive, which means that however you slice it we’re dealing with exponential demand increases in a situation with finite resources. This seems to me to be more linked to lifestyle than total population, but some of the structures that maintain high energy lifestyles rely on having a large enough population to extract rents from… so population is good enough, as a proxy, maybe.

      I suspect if we were only using energy that has been stored during, say, a realistic human lifespan (as with using coppices for firewood or beans or sheep or cows for food), and which could be accessed on foot or with animal power, the population would largely sort itself out. Carrying capacity isn’t only about available resources but also about time and rate of reproduction. It’s hard to bear children if you aren’t getting enough to eat or keeping warm enough, and if you do manage it then fewer of them will survive past infancy, and maybe you can cut down a few big trees or do some swidden agriculture but that strategy won’t last forever if you go too fast and any forester knows it… but we’ve really messed up the equation by using fossil fuels. The good news is that this appears to be a one-off mistake and once they’re gone, they’re gone. The bad news is that there are enough of them to seriously derange the ecosystem just by using them, we won’t run out of coal anytime soon.

  17. Good review. I hadn’t picked up the anti-rural aspect.

    On the land sharing – sparing debate it is worth noting (perhaps telling GM) that the IPBES report Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services writes on page 899: “Land-sparing” and “land-sharing” represent two extreme models about how landscapes can be shaped and refer to the degree of compatibility between different land use intensities, the conservation of biodiversity and generation of ecosystem services within a landscape (Balmford et al., 2005; Fischer et al., 2008; Phalan et al., 2011, 2016, see also Supplementary Materials 6.2.1). This simplified dichotomy (“land sparing” vs. “land sharing”) limits future possibilities (Chapter 5 section 5.3.2.1). There is
    increasing consensus in that visions of sustainable land-use
    systems will lie in between these contrasting models, by
    considering the specific social, economic, ecological and
    technological context (Fischer et al., 2008; Tscharntke et
    al., 2012; Chapter 5 section 5.3.2.1). A landscape-focused
    participatory approach to policy design and implementation
    is an option to better address dilemmas about land use
    allocation and intensity of use.”
    I agree with that. And of course this also apply to the rewilding and the notion of half-earth, i.e. that half of the earth shall be protected. Contrary to what many belief IUCN and IPBES do not define “protected area” as something that excludes humans, and Swedish current accidental rewiliding shows that wildlife has not primarily been damaged by farming but by hunting, see separate comment (or the link)

    I didn’t read or review GM’s book, but I did review his article in the Guardian where he outlined the book.
    https://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2022/06/in-defence-of-farming.html

  18. On the perceived conflict between domestic livestock and wild life: In Sweden the number of wild animals have increased tremendously the last 200 years. In the mid-19th century there were just a few hundred roe deer, moose and red deer and now there are around 300,000, 240,000 and 26,000 respectively. Wild boars had been exterminated in the 17th century and now there are some 350,000. Beavers were gone by 1870 and now we have 100,000. Hunting of cranes and swans have just started again as their numbers are causing problems. Even the predators are making comeback. Meanwhile, the number of people, pigs and poultry has increased many times and the number of cattle is more or less the same. This remarkable comeback of wild life is a result of many factors, but hunting regulations is the most important one.

  19. Did GM explain why he recommends producing fats and protein in factories but why we – still – should grow vegs and (perennial) grains? I mean, you can as well produce starch, vitamins and fibers in vats as well so nobody had to farm. Is it simply that he likes eating bread fruits and vegs more than beef, butter and lard?

    Is there any discussion on gastronomy and that food is culture and eating is a social act?

  20. https://www.ecosophia.net
    A essay from the arch druid , Greer .
    I have read some of the books he mentions and like him rejected the one size fits all ecotech, brave New world , unlike Chris with ” small farm future ” non of them believe that leaving things to the peasants would actually work , for 50 years books have been written from the top down perspective not the bottom up , peasant bottom up worked well for centuries untill politics interfered .

  21. Gunnar – I meant to link to your piece in the post, but forgot so I’m glad you did! I always find your writing informative. Your stuff about livestock, steering between the vegan & regen grazing ultras, is really good.

    Fascinating point about hunting, which I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned in the debate. Extensive grazing/ranching is surely the biggest culprit in what George calls ‘agricultural sprawl’ but I’m sure a lot depends on the nature of the practice. Funny in that respect that he enthuses about the Maasai. Maybe it works better if you develop ecological grazing practices over the long-term rather than as a colonial project, and you don’t have guns. Shame George doesn’t examine that.

    On your other questions, George doesn’t say much about food culture and the social nature of food, except in heralding the gastronomic possibilities of new synthesized foods, which seem to excite him largely because of their novelty. And as I recall he focuses mainly on fermentation for protein, not for energy. Interesting point. Calories are usually the limiting factor in food production systems, so you’ve got me wondering if he went for protein because the maths for the calories look even more implausible. As to vegetables, perhaps the issue is that they have a more complex structure and nutrient composition, whereas energy and protein dense foods are easier to replicate as pastes or chunks of undifferentiated material. But he doesn’t really say.

    Diogenes – new world order theorizing strays far outside my political parameters, but I don’t mind hosting a range of views on here. However, speaking as someone with a great-great grandparent who was Jewish (like most people, I expect), or just speaking for myself, I don’t want to platform comments about George Soros’s hidden designs. Shadowy cabals and all that… All I’ll say is that if the global rich are using us lot at XR to advance their plans, then there’s not much to fear from them. I only wish that was true. But where I do agree with you is that at least a little bit of experience at the muckheap is useful in discussions about food and farming. George’s book starts and ends with some tales from his orchard. I wish he could have brought that to bear a bit better on the middle part. Also agree on plural bottom-up small farm futures.

    Josh, Kathryn – thanks for the debate about soil chemistry. The regen folks would say that the woodchip is feeding fungi and microbes that mobilise latent nutrients in the soil, although you can’t mobilise them if they’re not there, and it’s not a great idea to use fungi as miners. For now, like Kathryn I’m happy to add as diverse a mix of organic matter to our crops as we can, which includes imported nutrients via the offerings of the many visitors to our site, as well as cover crops. But perhaps there’s a case for a bit of travel in a small farm future to build up the micronutrients. I remain agnostic about whether a min till/woodchip regimen scales, but it certainly doesn’t scale in the way commercial growers do it at the moment. Of course, you could say the same about synthetic N or fallowing/ploughing.

    • I recently participated in a debate with the CEO for this company https://green-on.se/ making cooking oil/fat with “power to food” technology. She told me that they use 10 kWh per kg of oil, which means that it energy wise is nonsensical as 1 kg of oil has approximately 10 kWh of energy (8800 kcal to be more precise and 10 kWh is 8600 kcal). And of course that is only the crude process – to make the stuff into a “food” probably needs a more processing. With current electricity prices it is also economically a disaster even in Sweden where electricity still is a lot cheaper than in most of Europe.

      • Plus, the electricity for making “food” (or powering electric cars) typically requires an energy input that’s significantly higher than the kWh measured at the point of use.

        Whether the electricity is made in a nuclear power plant, or a coal-fired power plant, the power plant efficiency is only around 35% (with 65% lost). Then there are transmission losses and distribution losses (which can amount to 6% or more).

        Not to mention the energy required to construct the power plant and obtain the fuel.

        https://3dfs.com/articles/wasted-electricity-vs-lost-electricity-in-the-u-s-electrical-grid/12/2015

    • Chris, Kathryn, I do many of same things you both do that are considered regen. I make my own compost from the same types of things you do. I bring in coffee chaff from the roaster my wife works at. I have a small flock of sheep and goats that provide some manure and support ley rotation. I cover crop. I just happen to also bring in organic fertilizers in lieu of municipal compost or wood chips. I just believe there are some compelling reasons to limit woody debris use, but I didn’t intend to sound dogmatic.

      I grow in a rainy climate on glacial sandy loam that was hayed for years. There weren’t many nutrients here to begin with and those that were, were long ago mined out in the hay or leached out by the rain. Our soil is very short on certain nutrients and has a super low exchange capacity. (Kathryn, I envy your clay in that regard but also know there are trade offs.) Figuring out how to build fertility here has been a challenge given I want to limit off farm inputs.

      We all have to make trade offs with the tools we use. And soil tests are just one of the unsustainable tools I choose. Understanding soil chemistry is both interesting and insightful. But it certainly isn’t the end all.

      I struggle to determine what practices available to us today we should use given they will likely be unavailable in the future. It isn’t an easy matter and I do appreciate all attempts to work toward closed loop. I am not there by any stretch but I try to judiciously use the tools that are still available to maybe setup this farm for the inevitable move to more and more closed loop it will likely have to be in the future.

      • Indeed — there are always tradeoffs.

        I mentioned seaweed as a source of minerals; in much of the UK, this would be a reasonably local resource which could potentially be used as a soil amendment.

        I have read Steve Solomon’s book where he gets into the weeds a bit on balancing soil nutrients, and I don’t entirely disagree, though I note that some of the work on soil microbiology that I’ve seen post-dated his publications; but I don’t think it’s feasible or sensible for me on an allotment in the UK, and I’m not getting my entire diet from the allotment anyway.

        I find that the coffee chaff is much easier to cart around than used coffee grounds, but I do find it forms a solid mat in the compost as soon as it gets wet if I’m not careful; do you have any tips for dealing with it? (I’m still thinking about using it for mushroom cultivation… whether using fungi to mine minerals is a good idea surely depends on the fungi and the minerals!) I usually build a heap in layers, then turn it once or maybe twice to get everything mixed together.

  22. Pingback: Sympathy, Weeds, and Brutal Friends - Front Porch Republic

  23. I find two things amusing about the “women had to do all the hard work in pre-industrial societies”.

    First, there was nothing about any previous culture that prohibited men from doing the same work as women… except men…

    Second, there is nothing about this culture that has erased the menial work that needs doing to support the body — which women still do, mostly.

    This will not change until we no longer have bodies. Unless men suddenly decide to participate more fully. Which has nothing to do with the way we provide for those bodies and everything to do with male notions of status. If we live off of nasty vat grown bacteria and fungi gloop, women will likely still be doing most of the low-prestige work. Probably brown women… just like yesterday… just like today…

    Ecomodernists who point out that women have had to do these things in the past agricultural world are seemingly ignorant of the large number of women still doing these same things to support their ecomodernist bodies.

    One just has to smile and nod and go back to doing the necessary work…

    • Brilliantly put, Elizabeth! I guess the fond (or sinister, depending on how you approach it) ecomodernist hope is that technologies will develop so that ultimately indeed we don’t have bodies – if not literally in some of the crazy post-human singularity type stuff, then metaphorically in the sense that tech will do all the care work. Seems pretty clear to me that trying to buy out of farm work, human care work and all these other points of contact with the recalcitrant material world is only ever going to be an option for a small minority of privileged men and women, and it’s less privileged men and women who are ultimately paying that price. And, as you say, the gender disparities are not intrinsic to the forms of work. Thanks for elucidating that so clearly.

  24. Regarding rewilding, In the US I have read that there are many, many more deer now than prior to colonization. Apparently, the forest edge created by suburban and rural development, farms, is perfect habit. In fact there is an attempt to get more people hunting to help keep the population in check as there are fewer and fewer hunters as our population has urbanized and aged. Ironic given how many guns we have……

    When I look at my own farm, if it were allowed to go back to forest it would provide significantly less wild life habitat than there is now even with our farming and grazing. Now we make a specific point to provide corridors, fence off wetlands and our wood lot is almost complete left alone. Not only does the wildlife benefit but so do we. More amphibians eating pests and being eaten by birds and snakes. More birds to help with pests, swallows in particular. Bats for mosquitos. Hawks, owls and other raptors help with rabbits, moles etc. A wide variety of insects and pollinators living in hedges and pollinator strips. Most of that would be gone if this farm reverted back to forest.

    Also, we use livestock guard dogs who just by their presence keep bears, coyotes, cougars away. No need for lethal control or livestock loss or confrontation.

    The idea that wildlife and farms are mutually exclusive shows a real lack of imagination and practical real world experience. There are farming models that are terrible for wildlife and there are models that are likely beneficial and everything in between.

    • I agree there is more wildlife around here in the farmland than the natural lands , for a start there is more ponds ( called tanks round here ) they tell me there is only one natural pond lake in the whole of Texas , each morning I can see deer and Turkey , with the odd bobcat now and then , plus snapping turtles , porcupine , armadillo , skunk and posum all coming for a drink , there is no surface water round here for fourty or so miles as the ponds run dry the wildlife disappears .

      • Hadn’t thought of that. I grew up in Texas and New Mexico and definitely saw plenty of rough grazing land, bare tilled soil or mono cropped cotton, sorghum, sunflowers, etc. all around. But there were usually riparian areas that still seemed to support wild life. Stock ponds would definitely be an improvement in many areas from a wildlife perspective.

        Granted there are no longer any buffalo but to Gunners point that had more to do with hunting than agriculture. With a little opportunistic genocide thrown in. Though the competition with cattle was definitely in the mix I suppose.

  25. My son is a vegetarian.  My wife and I are not.  We raise sheep and chickens and buy beef from a small rancher we know and shared a pig with a friend.  All very local and presumably about a sustainable as can be expected.  My son isn’t militant about it and in fact is quite willing to have debates on the topic of meat eating.  He was in class this past spring at university where the topic was something like “The Ethics of Veganism”.  He and a buddy attempted to engage folks in real debates about some of the nuances.  Mostly it was a no go.  They couldn’t even have an honest debate about whether plant based meats were really better for the environment of not.  Or how animals have been historical integral to growing food.  And certainly no talk of the future discussed here.  No real analysis or critical discussion.  Just its wrong because its cruel, cow farts, etc.  

    I bring this up in relation to the gloop comments.  I have asked my son if he understand the carbon footprint of his “Beyond Meat” burger and he doesn’t know.  I suppose if you dont eat meat because you think it’s cruel you might not care.  But if it is to lower your carbon footprint this would be important to understand.  Has anyone see any analysis on this?

    • Found this.

      https://sustainablereview.com/is-beyond-meat-sustainable/

      I cant argue with the numbers they provide. Someone else might be able to….

      But when I see things like coconut oil and cocoa butter as ingredients, I have to wonder about those sources. Do coconut and cocoa farms intrude on wildlife? I suspect so but maybe not as bad as palm oil?

      So we rewild western countries and eliminate livestock, so we can expand other forms of agriculture in the global south. Sounds like the standard MO. A least the first two ingredients, peas and canola oil, can be source on more “locally”.

      But the real truth is this one line:

      “Beyond meat is sustainable only if its supply chain is.”

      And we know the answer to that.

      Fermented gloop. Same story.

  26. Thanks for the further discussion about woodchip, biodiversity and such. Very interesting. You didn’t sound dogmatic, Josh – no offence taken!

    The idea of humans, whether farmers or foragers, as patch disturbers who potentially diversify the habitat and increase biodiversity or wildlife is interesting. Certainly George’s blanket ‘farming is bad for biodiversity’ is way over-simplified. It gets sticky enough just trying to define biodiversity… Hopefully I’ll come back to this at some point. Though, unlike him, I don’t have the time to read 5,000 research papers.

    I’ve come across this review of George’s book – another front in the vegans vs regen war. I’d be interested in any comments –

    https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2022/06/22/monbiots-regenesis-a-review-response/

    • Hi, I came across your review in Resilience.org, which led me here. I recently read Regenesis and found it to be a bit odd. There seemed to be a huge bit missing in the story he is telling that he tries to paper over with his ideas for solving problems caused by industrial agriculture. He is afraid of death, having faced the possibility once, and so refuses to see the end point of this civilisation, and so tries to find solutions that avoid it, and is led into a techno-utopian trap, blind to the consequences.
      People find facts to fit their beliefs. It has been called the “ladder of inference”, and everyone does it. So a vegan will produce facts, a rancher will produce other facts, and both can prove themselves to be right in certain contexts. What counts is what happens on the ground, in reality. All ground is different, so what works in one place will not in another.
      The fact that George is clutching at straws with his solutions, and brushing the problems under the rug suggests delusion: he has no answer and he knows it, but that would make for a more humble book.
      I have William Catton’s Overshoot burned into my brain which I think is the single most important yardstick to measure any process by: do you take out more than is replenished, and does your waste get absorbed faster than you make it? Anything else is self-terminating at some point in time. Each process needs to be examined in as broad a way as possible, with humility, and then tested if needed.
      I think the reviewer makes some good points about some of the sources George uses, but not all. The points he makes about rewilding are relevant. His personal views are funny, especially the conclusion, but a little harsh.

    • Very interesting video on the south west desert I am not that far away from it and have relatives in NM that are in it , they use mob graizing techniques which do work .

    • An interesting review, if somewhat tediously harsh; but i would note that Reading UK (not Redding, though I have my own difficulties with typing as is clear to anyone who has read most of my comments) doesn’t get much of the high rainfall that the UK is stereotypically known for; the south-east generally is closer to semi-arid conditions due to a rain shadow effect.

      Knowing this makes me wonder about the accuracy of some of the rest of it. If you’re going to get into the weeds, get the weeds right. But in general I agree it’s important to distinguish between conventional industrial monoculture farming and more regenerative practises when looking at soil building and carbon sequestration; and it’s important to look at resource extraction when talking about where the energy for factory-produced gloop is going to come from.

      I feel more like a lumper than a splitter today so I’m going to say that if conventional industrial monoculture farming makes claims about human labour efficiency such that it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And if Monbiot’s gloop factories make claims that seem too good to be true, well, that’s probably also true. What they have in common is a disconnection of the people eating the food from the process of producing the food, and an idea that we can reduce the human labour and management involved without incurring external costs.

      Meanwhile I’ve discovered that with the right supplier I can get pre-colonised mushroom fruiting blocks delivered to my home where all I have to do is keep them at the right temperature and humidity (we call this technology a “spray bottle”) and they will produce oyster (and other) mushrooms for me for slightly less than the cost of the ones I usually buy from the grocery store, *and* I get to bury the spent blocks in the allotment low-dig beds (or compost them or whatever) and may well get more mushrooms from that too. Less packaging, less silly refrigerated transport, fresher food, and a new ingredient to add to my compost, all for less money per kg yield than I was paying for mushrooms I already buy: what’s not to like? Though still more expensive than foraging for mushrooms; but given how dry it is here this summer, I’m not holding my breath there.

  27. I pooped out after reading about half the review. Wow. The guy certainly knows his cows and makes good arguments for livestock. He also knows the research that Mr Monbiot was reading. But I think he is a little biased, maybe without realizing it.

    Cooked cows taste great. Fake meat wouldn’t be a thing if it didn’t. Delicious food is a good reason to have livestock. But cows aren’t magic. Most of what goes in the front comes out the back. Yes, they chew it and digest it. Earthworms and soil microbes do to without the need for fencing or watering systems. Or winter housing and feeding.

    The comments on Tully’s chop and drop technique forgets that half or more of the plant matter is already incorporated in the ground as roots. If the soil is bone dry it won’t work as well as in a humid climate. If it is that dry, there is not going to be much forage produced for livestock to eat. Perhaps a case of trying to make one solution fit all situations.

    On soil organic matter, a 1% increase in SOM holds 26,000 gallons of water per acre. That comes out to almost exactly a inch of rain. Most crops need an inch of water, ~26,000 gallons of water per acre, per week to grow. What happens next week if it doesn’t rain ?

    None of that says that Mr Monbiot isn’t fooling himself. Complicated systems take a lot more energy to maintain that simple ones. Livestock have traditionally be incorporated into small farms to convert low grade or inedible crops into higher value products. I think it will be the same in a SFF but I’m not looking forward to mucking out the barn or busting ice out of water buckets in the winter.

  28. One comment I might make is having wandered up to your farm on a few occasions there is a great deal more ‘vegetation’ on it, both cultivated and not than the surrounding land that has had the equivalent of a No1 buzz cut.

    Worth adding of course that if you get enough I am told that woodchip will heat up nicely and as a result rot down quickly which is clearly better for the plants and of course Tolly has a bit of land with its own ‘issues’ that may not apply elsewhere

    • So we rewild western countries and eliminate livestock, so we can expand other forms of agriculture in the global south. Sounds like the standard MO. ”

      So the west basically destroys the natural world of the South to grow food for the re wilded North bringing food in with sailing ships , good luck with that .
      It seems to me that a lot of the eco babble acts as if humanity were aliens parachuted on to the planet rather than something OF the planet .

    • poor Mt Monbiot. Everyone is taking a poke at him. Not having read the book (and probably won’t) I just see issues raised by reviewers.

      An easy way to double organic food production is for people to eat less than perfect produce. ‘They’ say half the food produced is wasted. I can believe that. From radishes to tomatoes to winter squash, if it is not perfect and uniform, it gets left in the field.

      When you are shopping and paying full price, you pick the best.

      • As a forager, I note that our preference for uniformly round fruit, for example, might well stem from not wanting to eat the worms which are often in the lopsided bits.

      • I had read (and found a small amount of literature supporting) that damaged fruit and veg increase their production of anti-inflammatory (ai) and anti-oxindant (ao) compounds for their own protection. The produce must still be on the plant (i.e., not damaged in transit). No idea if worms cause this increased production. But if we want increased ai and ao compounds we might consider “imperfect” produce. Now… for the clever marketing campaign and logo…

  29. The review by the sustainable food trust (linked to earlier, but also at: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/news-views/regenesis-response/ ) says what I would say myself:

    “Monbiot deserves our respect because he cares. Clearly, he feels viscerally for the restricted lives and the suffering of intensively farmed animals. He loves the natural world, and it pains him to see how we have degraded and destroyed it.”

    and

    “it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that his years as a prolific author and columnist have taught him – that uncompromising claims and novel solutions, whether workable or not, sell both newspapers and books.”

    There’s an inflationary dynamic built into any controversy, which the internet has amplified to a deeply unpleasant degree. There is nothing an individual can do, other than try to avoid getting too far sucked into it personally.

  30. TFFC. Not much to add, except to thank John for noticing my attempt to solve the global climate crisis single-handed through the prodigious sequestration of carbon in the weeds on my holding.

    On bigger scales, I think compost/woodchip management starts to get problematic. Another argument for human scale?

    Thanks also for the SFT review, and your comments Greg on the Regen review. I will come back to some of this soon, I hope.

  31. I had read (and found a small amount of literature supporting) that damaged fruit and veg increase their production of anti-inflammatory (ai) and anti-oxindant (ao) compounds for their own protection. The produce must still be on the plant (i.e., not damaged in transit). No idea if worms cause this increased production. But if we want increased ai and ao compounds we might consider “imperfect” produce. Now… for the clever marketing campaign and logo…

    • You can simulate this with lettuce by tearing it instead of cutting it before eating. It needs to sit for a bit before you eat. Somebody correct me if I am wrong but I believe some of these compounds (bitterness) are intended to dissuade pest from eating them. We evolved along side and benefit. Fascinating.

      • Dissuading pests does go around and around over time. If we look at it from our food organism’s point of view – we might be considered public pest number one. We’ve even learned to use many of the poisons for our own benefit (drugs for instance).

        Farming vs. hunter gatherer lifeways change the dynamic as we choose which species we’ll cultivate or husband and thereafter breed (select) individuals that have less of the properties we don’t want (and more of the traits we do value).

        Leaf cutter ants do as much.

        There is another significant aspect to our food system – beyond husbandry and breeding – and that is food prep. Cooking and fermenting can remove toxins and contaminants that would otherwise make the raw products either undesirable or outright dangerous.

        So it isn’t too much of a leap to envision some sort of futuristic food system with even more fermentation or artificial food production. Having such technology can be beneficial; one more tool in the tool box. Just because such tech exists doesn’t immediately imply we must use it. Context. Context. Context.

        In a way, I think it matters as much how one ‘sells’ a new idea such as those discussed here. When one sees the benefit as enabling further urbanization rather than just another tech that might be helpful in some situations – and the push back is because of distaste for further urbanization. Well, the baby and bath water phrase comes to mind.

    • … And to George and others reading this, please forgive me my ‘any pork in a storm’ pessimism regarding fake meat and similar.

  32. Did some digging into feedstocks and energy requirements of factory food. There are apparently two main approaches to these manufactured foods: biological (including precision fermentation, and cell-based meat) and chemical (including “Power to Food” starting with the electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen which is used to make tryglycerides or other edible compounds).

    Summary:

    Precision fermentation costs in 2019 were about $100/kg, and costs were “expected” to fall below $10/kg by 2025. The primary feedstock is typically sugar, with around 3kg of feedstock per 1kg of protein produced, expected to fall below 2kg of feedstock by 2030. (I didn’t find the energy costs of PF broken out from the total cost.) PF can involve the manipulation of genetic sequences to result in specific animal or plant molecules being produced by microbes.

    Power-to-Food uses electricity to obtain hydrogen from water, then uses the hydrogen to make ethylene, which is then used to synthesize fatty acid alcohols, which are then oxidized to free fatty acids, which can be esterified to produce triglycerides, which can be blended and processed into food products. The patent (link below) for the Swedish power-to-food process doesn’t mention the amount of energy required per kg of triglycerides produced. Looking at just the electricity required for the initial step, electrolysis is typically only 75% efficient (25% loss of energy when going from electricity to hydrogen), and the generation of the electricity is typically only around 35% efficient (65% loss of energy when going from fuel to electricity), with additional losses for transmission and distribution of the electricity to the point of use. So already there can be a 75% (or higher) loss in energy content when going from fuel (for electrical generation) to the hydrogen (before the subsequent chemical processes to eventually obtain triglycerides).
    Maths: [1-(75)x.(35)]= 74% loss of energy (not including the transmission and distribution losses) to obtain hydrogen from electricity generated from fuel.

    1. Precision fermentation (PF):

    “Through PF, scientists can program microbes to make specific, customized molecules to do whatever we want, including making food and other consumer products taste, feel and perform better. Scientists do this using precision biology to study and catalogue the proteins and other molecules in plants and animals, as well as the genetic information that codes for them. They then use this data – which is stored in massive, searchable databases – to copy, edit and paste relevant genetic sequences, and even brand-new sequences designed from scratch, into microbes. The microbes then act as highly efficient factories that consume specific inputs and spit out desired outputs (whether they are the exact same molecules that are found in plants and animals, modified or entirely new ones).”
    rethinkdisruption dot com/precision-fermentation-what-exactly-is-it/

    “PF is the process that allows us to program micro-organisms to produce almost any complex organic molecule. These include the production of proteins (including enzymes and hormones), fats (including oils), and vitamins to precise specifications, abundantly, and ultimately at marginal costs approaching the cost of sugar… The cost of PF is being driven ever lower by a steep decline in the cost of precision biology. As a result, the cost of producing a single molecule by PF has fallen from $1m/kg in 2000 to about $100/kg today [2019]. We expect the cost to fall below $10/kg by 2025.” [page 18]

    “Feedstock. Our analysis uses sugar (glucose) as the main feedstock, with efficiency trending from 3kgs of feedstock per 1kg of protein produced (a conversion ratio of 3:1) toward a ratio of less than 2:1 by 2030. There is also scope for other carbohydrates to be used for feedstock.” [page 65]

    “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030”
    from rethinkx dot com/food-and-agriculture

    2. Power to Food:

    “A Swedish group from the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) is developing an electrochemical process that produces edible fats and free fatty acids using CO2, water, and energy. The process, called “Power to Food,” does not use biological processes like the majority of single-cell protein developers but instead uses a catalytic chemical process known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to ultimately isolate ethylene, synthesize fatty acid alcohols from the ethylene, and oxidize said fatty acid alcohols to free fatty acids… The researchers have one granted patent, which describes the method of production. At this time, the group has yet to establish a pilot production facility, and it estimates the costs for the edible fats to be up to three times higher than that of rapeseed oil.”
    CASE STUDY: SWEDISH RESEARCHERS IDENTIFY FAT AS THE NEWEST OPPORTUNITY FOR CO₂-DERIVED INGREDIENTS
    Lux Research
    web.archive dot org/web/20211101163202/https://www.luxresearchinc.com/blog/case-study-swedish-researchers-identify-fat-as-the-newest-opportunity-for-co-derived-ingredients

    “[054] A third aspect relates to a method for the production of edible organic substances, said method comprising the steps
    electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen and oxygen,
    capture or recovery of carbon dioxide,
    conversion of said carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide,
    subjecting said hydrogen and carbon monoxide to a Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to produce a mixture of olefins,
    optionally increasing the proportion of ethylene by coupling of methane to form ethylene, and/or converting, for example cracking higher olefins to form ethylene,
    isolating ethylene,
    synthesizing alpha-olefins or fatty acid alcohols from said ethylene, and oxidizing said alpha-olefins or fatty acid alcohols to free fatty acids…
    Example 5. Food production
    [0101] Substances produced via the described processes are administered directly, or as formulations/mixtures, to humans. Free fatty acids play an important role in the aroma and flavour of many dairy products, such as milk, butter and cheese. Synthetic free fatty acids can thus be used to produced non-dairy substitutes for such products…
    [0102] Fats can be processed into stable emulsions by vigorously mixing fat, water and one or more emulsifiers, and optionally adding flavouring, food dyes, vitamins and other additives well-known to persons skilled in the art of food processing. Examples of products obtainable from the synthetic fats disclosed herein include but are not limited to non-dairy milk and cream substitutes, non-dairy cheese, spreads, and ice-cream. The synthetic fats can also be incorporated into cereal or legume-based products, such as snacks, ready meals, baked goods etc.
    [0103] As the substances are identical to nutritional substances found in conventional food, they will contribute to the human metabolism. For humans, maintaining the body temperature is a main energy sink and the substances produced according to the concept, methods and processes disclosed herein can be used as a fundamental energy supply for this purpose and thereby complement a diversified diet. A unique feature of this concept is that the energy gained by the human body this way is indirectly produced by electricity…”
    Patent: Concept for the production of food with reduced environmental impact
    https://patents.google.com/patent/WO2020035528A1/en

    “A kilogram of hydrogen holds 39.4 kWh of energy, but typically costs around 52.5 kWh of energy to create via current commercial electrolyzers.”
    newatlas dot com/energy/hysata-efficient-hydrogen-electrolysis/

    “Power plants – coal, natural gas, petroleum or nuclear – work on the same general principle. Energy-dense stuff is burned to release heat, which boils water into steam, which spins a turbine, which generates electricity. The thermodynamic limits of this process (“Damn that rising entropy!”) mean only two-thirds of the energy in the raw materials actually make it onto the grid in the form of electricity.”
    insideenergy dot org/2015/11/06/lost-in-transmission-how-much-electricity-disappears-between-a-power-plant-and-your-plug/

    • Correction:
      I misread the quote about power plant efficiency, it’s typically 65% efficient instead of 35%, so this is the corrected calculation for generation followed by electrolysis:

      Maths: [1-(.75)x.(65)]= 51% loss of energy (not including the transmission and distribution losses) to obtain hydrogen from electricity generated from fuel.

      • Disregard the correction. The quote (“only two-thirds of the energy in the raw materials actually make it onto the grid in the form of electricity”) is incorrect. Two-thirds of the energy in the raw materials is actually what’s lost.

        From a website promoting the use of natural gas:
        “…when natural gas-fired power plants generate electricity for these same appliances, the efficiency is only 37%.”
        https://www.naturalgasgenius.com/genius-benefits/efficiency/

        • Wow ! As a conventional farmer I am glad I am old and will not have to live in the dystopian hell hole of hydrogen to food .
          There is a but in here , where the hell is the electricity coming from ? Virtually all the west is short of electricity with grids built fifty years ago held together with spit and bailing wire
          This is another of the blinkered research fiascos , ” we can do this ” but we can’t because no one ever thought about where the energy comes from, just like electric car owners being told not to plug them in because the grid will not take the load , ” we can build electric cars ” but we can’t charge them
          Specialisation disconnected from reality .
          Thanks for the piece Steve ! ,

    • I think I’m missing a step. Sugar is C, H and O. Protein typically has amino acids which contain N and H. The devil being in the details, if sugar is the main feedstock for PF, where does the N come from ?

      • Indeed there is a need for both N and S to make protein. So where the S comes from is also important (e.g., methionine and cysteine). It is possible the microbes in the fermentation are using atmospheric N as Kathryn suggests. The S on the other hand is still a mystery to me. Time to consult original literature.

        • There maybe more than a little blue sky still in the PF process for practical purposes.

          Obviously, I’m not a synthetic biologist, but with home scale fermenting keeping air out of the process is important.

        • The “recipe” for a Power-to-Food example that uses hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria requires
          0.14 kg of Sulfur
          and
          0.16 kg of Ammonia
          per kg of biomass output that has 60% protein content.

          https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-020-01771-3/tables/1
          Table 1 Energy and material flows of processes of the base situation per 1 kg of produced biomass
          From: A life cycle environmental sustainability analysis of microbial protein production via power-to-food approaches

          • The “recipe” also requires 0.14 kg of mineral phosphate per 1 kg of biomass output having 60% protein content.

        • Rearranging some data from Table 1 to make it easier for me to grasp the implications:

          Manufacturing 100 kg of Power-to-Food protein requires approximately 74 kg of chemicals/minerals, plus 30 kg of CO2, plus 2,940 kWh of energy.

          (This accounts for the 60% protein content of the biomass output, but doesn’t include energy losses during the generation of the required electricity)

          Required chemicals/minerals:
          Phosphate – 23.3 kg
          Sulfur – 23.3 kg
          Ammonia – 26.7 kg
          Other chemicals – 0.6 kg
          Total chemicals/minerals – 73.9 kg per 100 kg of protein

          How does this compare to soybeans produced on a farm?

          A soybean crop producing 100 kg of soybeans requires 28 kg of chemical/mineral uptake, and those soybeans contain 40% protein and 19% oil.

          Thus, 100 kg of protein from soybeans requires 28/.4 = 70 kg of chemical/mineral uptake.
          However, in addition to that 100 kg of protein, there is 47 kg of oil that’s produced with no additional chemical/mineral uptake.

          Note that this is uptake, not application (which could be higher or lower). The largest component this uptake is nitrogen, and “a significant part of the N uptake can be derived from BNF [Biological Nitrogen Fixation].”

          “Soybean is a very energy-rich grain legume containing 40 percent protein and 19 percent oil in the seeds….
          Nutrient requirements
          Total nutrient uptake by the plants per tonne of grain production can be taken as
          follows (IFA, 1992):
          – macronutrients (kg): N 146, P2O5 25, K2O 53, MgO 22, CaO 28 and S 5;
          – micronutrients (g): Fe 476, Zn 104, Mn 123, Cu 41, B 55 and Mo 13.
          Under conditions favourable for N fixation, a significant part of the N uptake can be derived from BNF [Biological Nitrogen Fixation].”

          Plant Nutrition for Food Security, FAO, 2006
          Chapter 8, Nutrient management guidelines for some major field crops
          (page 246)
          https://www.fao.org/3/a0443e/a0443e04.pdf

          • The current price for 1.5 kilos of soybeans (at 40% to equal one kilo of 60% protein) is $2.50, and that is historically fairly high.

    • Typical average power plant efficiency is closer to 35%. The first paragraph of the article you linked to has it wrong, but the bold header and the chart of efficiency below that paragraph have it right. Almost two thirds of the energy in most heat engine based plants is rejected to the environment. Transportation engines, like those in your car are even less efficient.

      Really modern super-critical and combined cycle powerplants can produce electricity at somewhat higher efficiencies, but not 65%.

      • The best diesel engines are 50% efficient , half the energy in a gallon of diesel comes out at the flywheel , there’s a but the energy needed to make the thing in the first place .

    • 90 kWh per kg of protein?

      As detailed in the study linked below, another type of Power-to-Food process creates protein by supplying the hydrogen to H2-oxidizing bacteria. This process also uses Ammonia (from Haber-Bosch), Phosphorus (from mineral phosphate), Sulfur (from oil refinery), and CO2 (from direct air capture).

      Adding up the reported energy inputs (in kWh per kg of biomass produced):
      Direct air capture – 4.48 kWh
      Bioreactor – 9.86 kWh
      Post process – 3.30 kWh
      Total energy input (per kg of biomass produced) = 17.64 kWh
      Total energy input (per kg of protein produced) = 17.64/0.60 = 29.4 kWh
      (assumes 60% protein content for the biomass from C. necator bacteria)

      This 29.4 kWh per kg of protein does not include the embodied energy for the ammonia and mineral inputs. More important, it also doesn’t account for the energy losses during the generation of the electricity (which could effectively triple the energy required per kg of protein, for the typical power plant generation efficiency of 35%, resulting in a total fuel energy input of around 90 kWh per kg of protein).

      Data obtained from
      A life cycle environmental sustainability analysis of microbial protein production via power-to-food approaches
      https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-020-01771-3

  33. The N in the process described by George comes from Haber-Bosch. More efficiently used, and not leaked into watercourses, but still Haber-Bosch. Without a fossil fuel feedstock, I guess you’d have to ramp up the energy use figures yet further. Not sure where the S comes from.

    To Clem’s point about another tool in the box, I partially agree. That’s why I focused my review mostly upon George’s wider political and cultural framing, and made a point of agreeing that new foods aren’t intrinsically problematic. Still, I tip my hat to Steve for making the energetic implications plain. To me, the fermentation approach only looks feasible in a world of cheap and abundant low-carbon energy, and I don’t think that’s a world we’re heading towards.

    But an issue I have with the tool in the box metaphor is that it looks only at the tools while assuming that the box is fixed, and this isn’t how technologies work in practice. For example, I have been harvesting wheat today with a pair of scissors on an 18 acre farm with 9 residents and a mix of gardens, woodlands and grasslands. One of the neighbouring fields is about the same size – it’s one of many tended by the same farmer, has no residents, grows a single crop each year (usually wheat, as is the case this year), and is harvested with a combine. There are many more fields in the UK of this latter sort (lacking trees, gardens, residents etc.) than ones like mine. So while we could compare the combine and the pair of scissors and say they’re just different tools in the box (it’d have to be a large box in the case of the combine, which partly explains why the landscape looks a bit like a prairie) the more important issue as I see it is that the tool shapes the box, and the shape of the box is important. I’m not suggesting that wheat should only be harvested with scissors, but imagine the reception I’d get if I stood up at, say, the Oxford Farming Conference, waved a pair of scissors around and said it was just another tool in the box for wheat harvesting. I think that tells us something about the socially determining character of technology, which means that technology is never ‘just’ technology.

    • So while we could compare the combine and the pair of scissors and say they’re just different tools in the box (it’d have to be a large box in the case of the combine, which partly explains why the landscape looks a bit like a prairie) the more important issue as I see it is that the tool shapes the box, and the shape of the box is important.

      I can sit still for an argument where the scale of the job shapes the scale of the tool… and where some consideration of the resources to hand will shape the list of tools that make sense… but how does a theoretical tool box’s size make a claim?

      I imagine a scene far into the distant past… upon the plain at Giza. The engineer for the Pharaoh is setting up to build a pyramid. Some poor bloke happens upon the scene and complains that the engineer must be suffering from too much sun… for how could any tool one carries in hand (in a tool box for a scissors, say) be up for such an effort??

      The greatest tool we have at our disposal is not the size of a combine, indeed it really isn’t much larger than a simple scissors. It will readily fit into a box that one could easily carry from place to place. The vast majority of us carry such a tool with us wherever we go. It rests just behind our eyes and in between our ears.

      As for fermentation – this tech is really quite ancient. Indeed the Egyptian engineer and his tut tutting friend could have adjourned from the summer heat to share some alcoholic beverage – made by fermentation. There were no fossil fuels involved. My brother is a home brewer. He employs a 5 gallon carboy. Fully loaded I can still lift the 45 pound device. It is bigger than a scissors, I will admit. And it is bigger than my brain… but compared to the barrels at play in large commercial breweries it is a mere speck. Both tools do the same job, and my teeny little brain has no difficulty imagining some metaphorical tool box where they both fit.

    • “…technology is never ‘just’ technology.”

      So true.

      I’m enjoying the image of you going across the prairie wheat field with a pair of scissors and a bucket.

      Perhaps my mental image is not exactly accurate.

      My wife likes to use the scythe, but it always seems to me that it just makes a mess, then you have to bend down again to pick up the straw. I prefer a sickle and 115 liter plastic trash can. Grab, slice, drop, repeat.

      We just finished wheat threshing & winnowing.
      Yield 66Kg/0.06Ha ; 145Lb/0.14 Ac for 72.5 man hours.
      Yes, my wife does man hours.
      That’s .91Kg/Hr ; 2lb/Hr. Not terrible, I guess.
      The most time consuming activity was the threshing/sifting, which took 1.5 times as many hours per weight as cutting. Maybe because my thresher requires 2 people to operate – one pedaling, and one feeding straw.

      I’m still puzzling over what shape of box this technology is creating, other than taking up space in my garage.
      But I was in a hurry to finish the threshing so I could get started on the new improvements to the thresher.
      Mostly to cut back on spillage, and to chop the straw better.

      I keep thinking of Naomi and Ruth.
      Gleaning.
      What a way to make a living!
      Often when I’m strewing straw all over during the cutting/threshing process, I can barely get myself to bend over and pick up a few stray heads of grain. Imagine that being your main crop.
      Much more of a gatherer mindset.
      And exactly opposite of the combine harvester mindset.

      • The next mathematical venture ( which I am not capable of ) is how much human energy was used to produce the the wheat and how much wheat is spare for saving for later ?
        Human output ,300 watts / hour versus watts of energy in the wheat when the wheat is cut winnowed , ground and turned into bread , how many spare watts / calories are saved for future use .
        There are parts of the US that crops so poor that you would starve trying to live in what you produced , the numbers only add up when cheap diesel is used .

        • Isn’t it that the crops are so poor *because* of all the decades of cheap diesel use?

          On the allotment as I work to improve the soil I am getting increasing, rather than decreasing, returns. It’s only my third year there so the sample is maybe too small to make many conclusions… but I can also observe and compare “improved” vs “unimproved” soil, and there’s a big difference. Notably, on the new half-plot I have seven compost bays made of pallets, five of which I managed to fill with coffee grounds, woodchips, leaves, coffee chaff, cardboard, manure, and whatever else I could find this winter, in layers. On the other side of the bays, I have tomatoes planted. This is compacted clay riddled with bindweed, and I didn’t dig it over or anything: just made a hole with an augur (really!) and dropped the tomato plants in. The tomatoes growing immediately beside the pallets that are currently used for storing wheelbarrows etc rather than composting are a good two feet shorter than the ones by the compost bays, a lighter shade of green, and are producing less fruit. They are downhill from the others, but I guess still too far from the compost to really thrive. Smaller again are the ones south of the shed on my other plot, where I’ve added thin layers of compost at various points, but nothing since last autumn when I put the garlic in.

          I should have seen this coming, really, but it’s annoying me: these are my outdoor tomato trials of blight-resistant varieties, and the growing conditions are so different that I don’t think I’m going to get useful results.

          Tomatoes, of course, aren’t a calorie crop. The winter squashes currently growing in the top of the compost bays appear to be doing well, though, despite a late start, with very little effort from me. And next year I hope to have time to fill all seven of those bays, plus the three on my first plot; and to incorporate some biochar from corn stalks into the mix.

          This is all very small scale, and it’s hard to say how quickly completely barren land can be made productive. But it’s certainly possible at a very human scale for a newbie like me to do things that improve soil health and yield, so what’s the excuse from the people using cheap diesel?

          • Not because of diesel no, its because it’s a alkaline desert , with ( cheap ) diesel and fertilizer / sulphur 60 pounds to the acre is possible , by hand you put more calories in than you get out , it was ranch country with a stock ratio of one cow / calf to fourty acres , that’s a lot of walking to grow into beef ,free to move from Canada to Mexico to find grass , somewhere between 60 to 120 million of them depending on who you read .
            Huge amounts of the USA is marginal land , mechanization makes it work financially , it will become prairie again when energy is in short supply .
            Where I live in TX rainfall is averaged at 23 inches a year , it comes from thunderstorms , this year we have had 3.5 inches so far , two years ago we had 39 inches by first of August , averages, sheesh .

    • From a history of combines-
      The combine harvester got its start in Scotland in 1826 when Reverend Patrick Bell designed a reaper—a large machine pushed by horses that used a type of scissors to cut the stalks.

      I have a battery powered hedge trimmer that works on small scale stuff and the same battery fits a cordless drill.

  34. On the matter of tool boxes, there are various ways of increasing their size, including the organization of mass human labour as well as its substitution with mechanical power, or even better kinds of cleverness. I wrote a post a while back about grains, fossil fuels and capitalism as key forces expanding the tool box beyond planetary capacities to contain it. But as well as the size of the box, I’m referring to its character – and I guess that goes for the tools too (maybe I’m suffering from metaphor contortion here). The box and its tools fitting for a rural society comprising mostly self-reliant horticulturists with wide-ranging dietary tastes will be different from the box and its tools fitting an urban society comprising mostly food purchasers following a diet dominated by cheap grains or their gloopy analogues. Hence, I’d argue that PF isn’t really just another tool in the box, but a particular tool in a particular, questionable, box. However, I agree that there’s no big deal about fermentation as such. There might be a big deal about its energetic implications when scaled up, as per Steve’s numbers.

    On the matter of wheat, I’m happy to tell you that I’m not cutting a prairie with scissors (the opposite of Aldo Leopold’s remodelling the Alhambra with a steam shovel), just six 1x13m garden beds – though even that’s a challenge (a podcast via bluetooth substitutes for the work gangs of old). The reason for scissors and not scythes is that I find the straw is a nuisance when you’re hand threshing, so it’s better to just be dealing with the ears. We’ll scythe the de-eared straw later. A sickle might be a better option, but there are various reasons why I haven’t opted for that right now. The main one that I’m willing to reveal publicly is that we’re growing mixed varieties of long-strawed heritage wheats, which are of different heights and some of which have lodged. Therefore it seemed like scissors might be the most effective option. Might have a rethink next year…

    • I was wondering about your wheat. I’d be very interested to hear more about your experiment with a population, in the fullness of time. FWIW I scythed my attempt (a bed of spelt, which also lodged), then switched to hedge shears. Next time I’ll definitely try scissors.

    • When visualizing the job being done with scissors, my hand can almost feel the imagined repetitive-stress soreness that seems likely, so I hope that “scissors” means pruners/secateurs. I’ve used pruners to cut individual ears to feed whole to chickens, and I find that using a serrated sickle for this job is more ergonomic and probably quicker.

      For small plots of wheat harvested by sickle (by the handful with longish stems), Peter Vido suggested taking a barrel/drum into the field, and “threshing” each handful immediately after cutting it, while it’s still in hand, by bashing it back and forth repeatedly against the barrel/drum interior wall, so the grains fall into the barrel. This method has worked well for me when the wheat is fairly ripe, and the back-and-forth bashing is done at high velocity.

    • FWIW, I got only a little bit of lodging with Wakelyn’s YQ heritage wheat, despite planting it a bit further apart than it really wanted on a high-wind site. And I think some of the lodging might have been courtesy of the fat pigeons who were trying to eat it! But I have heavy clay; the lodging was from broken stems, not from the roots coming loose.

  35. Thanks for further comments. Perhaps I’ll write a bit more to address this little sub-theme of small-scale wheat when I get the chance. Kinda like the Peter Vido suggestion.

    I’d been hoping to get another blog post out this week, but alas time has caught up with me. I’m speaking with eco-philosopher Rupert Read at the Green Gathering about A Small Farm Future later in the week.

    I’m cycling from Frome to Chepstow tomorrow prior to the event. More low-tech slow culture. But looking forward to another day’s truanting from the farm with a good long cycle ride

    • Human-powered wheels tend to lend themselves to the slightly thrilling feeling of truanting… sounds like a pleasant jaunt – have a joyous spin and Godspeed!

    • Hiking ? Biking ? You next book should be about how you manage your life to have time for these activities and make a living from a small vegetable farm.

      If there were options to post comments in colo(u)r my would be green with envy.

      Have a good ride.

  36. There is an essay by Wendell Berry many of us here may find interesting:
    https://orionmagazine.org/article/in-distrust-of-movements/

    A snippet:
    I remember, for example, my naive confusion at learning that it was possible for advocates of organic agriculture to look upon the “organic method” as an end in itself. To me, organic farming was attractive both as a way of conserving nature and as a strategy of survival for small farmers. Imagine my surprise in discovering that there could be huge “organic” monocultures. And so I was not too surprised by the recent attempt of the United States Department of Agriculture to appropriate the “organic” label for food irradiation, genetic engineering, and other desecrations of the corporate food economy. Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say. When “homemade” ceases to mean neither more nor less than “made at home,” then it means anything, which is to say that it means nothing. The same decay is at work on words such as “conservation,” “sustainable,” “safe,” “natural,” “healthful,” “sanitary,” and “organic.” The use of such words now requires the most exacting control of context and the use immediately of illustrative examples.

    • Another one of the reasons corporate America hates Russia , Deere sells worldwide , Belarus ran into the ya can’t fix it problem so the hackers got to work , yup they hacked it , Deere ain’t happy at the programme is on the net !
      A friend ran into this to , ( contractor with 14 tractors 6 combines changed every two years ) , $200 turn out fee to fix a glitch that took less than five minutes with a lap top , after a lot of argument with the dealer getting nowhere he Now buys new Holland , runs the Deere into the ground and sells them for parts.

  37. Thanks for further comments. Greg, yes I probably should write something sometime about how to manage a farm and a life so as to take trips away while still making a living from farming. The trick in my case is paid off land and housing along with a campsite (and, of course, a burgeoning publishing empire) meaning that the living I have to make from farming.is small. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but indeed all will be revealed in my next book, or the one after – for a price 🙂

  38. Pingback: For a new politics of ruralization - Resilience

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