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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative agriculture: a polite discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

Some further thoughts on organic fertility

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Can organic farming feed the world?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasture & fodder – 12-25Mt

Rice – 5 Mt

Sugar cane – 0.5Mt

Legume cropland – 21.45Mt

Non-legume cropland – <4Mt

Extensive savanna – <14Mt

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A final point. Professor Connor writes:

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

 

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

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

 

Notes

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

Home is not the house but where the garden is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

  1. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home. Penguin.

From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.

The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.

Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.

Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.

Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.

So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.

But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.

It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress: “planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.

Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.

The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.

So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.

And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.

I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.

So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.

Swidden as politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Russia To Love: Engaging with Chris Newman on the small family farm

Continuing my theme concerning peasant farming in this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, the general focus of this post is how and why revived neo-peasantries might help meet present global challenges.

On page 90 of my book, I lay out three typical characteristics of historic peasant farms:

  1. Most of the work is done by unwaged household/family labour
  2. The capitalization of the farm in terms of buildings, tools, stock etc. is viewed as a long-term endowment, not as an embodiment of liquid capital seeking to maximize profitable return
  3. These factors condition the economic behaviour of the farm’s occupants, which isn’t geared to maximizing net profit

I’ve drawn this from the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov (1888-1937) and his more recent interpreters1. I don’t mention Chayanov by name in the book and I’m not loyal to everything in his thought, but in many ways my book elaborates a Chayanovian vision for present times. As I see it, we need to embed a social economy in the finite needs of a collaborative society of households, rather than allowing an expansionary economy to drive society according to its own logic.

There’s a long history of misunderstanding and antipathy between this kind of Chayanovian peasant populism and other better known political-economic positions, not least Marxism – the regnant doctrine in Russia during Chayanov’s later years. A low point in this respect was Chayanov’s untimely death at the hands of Stalin’s regime and its vulgar, murderous class politics. Mercifully, we later Chayanovians have mostly suffered only textual assassinations from Marxists, but there’s a lot of talking past one another that goes on when Marxists and others on the mainstream left interact with agrarian populists. The same goes for engagement with more centrist/liberal positions.

As is perhaps suggested in the points above, what Chayanovians mean by ‘capital’ or ‘the market’ isn’t really the same as what Marxists or market liberals mean, and this sows much confusion. Chayanov himself didn’t always help matters, for example when he spoke confusingly of peasant ‘self-exploitation’, launching a thousand attempts to assimilate peasant economies to Marxist conceptions of surplus value and the ‘captured garden’ thesis that I discuss on page 93 of my book, and a thousand more attempts by market liberals to turn peasants into smallholding entrepreneurs. At the root of all this lurks a deep assumption that peasant life is both miserable and outmoded, an assumption resting on modernist notions of ‘progress’ that I argued in my previous post are ironically themselves now outmoded. So it’s time, I suggest, to reconsider peasantries and small-scale farming.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to make this case in counterpoint to a couple of recent interventions from Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia, USA – namely in this article entitled “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer: The Romance of Neoliberal Peasant Farming Blinds Us to Our Collective Power” and in this interesting podcast. Let me say first that I think Newman is a smart agrarian voice, and there’s a lot of common ground between us. I focus on points of divergence here only because I hope that clarifying them might be illuminating.

The first points of divergence come straightaway in the title of Newman’s article. ‘Small family farms aren’t the answer…’ – but the answer to what? Newman makes a powerful case that when individuals buy small plots of private farmland and sell renewably grown produce from them locally through retail routes such as farmers’ markets they make themselves helpless and irrelevant in the face of the mainstream food system, which will defeat them sooner or later, and probably break their backs, maybe their marriages too, into the bargain. I couldn’t agree more – although Newman does start his podcast by saying that his move into farming arose from the stress of his previous white-collar job. So maybe the problem doesn’t lie with specific jobs or job sectors like farming so much as the general economic system into which all job sectors fit, a system that breaks our backs if we step outside it and breaks our minds if we don’t.

But as I see it, the mainstream food system and the more generalized economy of which it’s a part will themselves be defeated sooner or later by a combination of climate, energy, economic, political and other problems that I outline in my book, and in these circumstances I see the Chayanovian small family farm as a potential ‘answer’ to the ensuing crises. It’s not an answer that will just happen by itself. It will need to be fought for. In that sense, I see the present tender crop of small-scale household farmers as useful pioneers in the work to come, especially in their work of self-provisioning rather than in their work of supplying market demand.

So, to my mind, Newman’s future visioning is insufficiently radical. It assumes a persisting liberal-capitalist marketplace that local and community-minded people can colonize by working together. He suggests that if such people in the DC area collectively raised US$50 million they could sort out food provision in the area. I think this underestimates the forces ranged against them, some of which are external to Newman’s vision, such as corporate food players and their government associates who I suspect would happily burn sums far in excess of $50 million in order to defeat upstart localisms. But there are also internal tensions in his vision that threaten to tear it apart (to be fair, there are internal tensions in every economic vision that threaten to tear it apart – so it’s as well to be clear about what they are in each case).

Newman’s subtitle is a gateway to the key tension – “neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. To my Chayanovian mind, the concept of a ‘neoliberal peasant’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s true that most small farmers (and most people doing every other kind of job) serve the neoliberal economy in one way or another. It’s true, too, that probably the majority of small farmers in wealthy countries are fairly well-to-do folks with some buy-in to the neoliberal status quo and, as Newman rightly suggests, there’s a need to de-gentrify farming by socializing access to farmland so that farming is a viable option for all sections of society. But in setting up a paired dichotomy between (petty) private ownership/neoliberalism on the one hand and collective ownership/community localism on the other, what I think he misses (and he’s not alone in this) is that collective power, collective landownership or commons aren’t intrinsically incompatible with private property. Peasant societies (other societies, too) combine private rights with collective ones – and, as I’ll now argue, in doing so they can be more radically non-neoliberal in a way that better fits present (or at least future) times than Newman’s cooperative model.

So I propose two games. In Game Newman, ordinary local folks pool resources to obtain hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish a cooperative structure with democratic working protocols, leverage its buying power to obtain economies of scale, pay decent salaries to worker-members and start supplying in bulk to local retail outlets.

The way I see this game playing out is firstly in a big financial transfer from the ordinary local folks to land vendors, although that hurdle probably isn’t insurmountable. Things get stickier establishing the working protocols, because flat structures involving lots of people suck a lot of time up in conflict management. Sure, some people claim that everything goes just swimmingly in their own farm co-op, but a working knowledge of agricultural co-ops and of agricultural history suggests to me that this outcome is, at best, very much in the minority. And modelling the social organization of an entire society on best-case scenarios isn’t a great idea.

The next problem is that although the co-op’s pooled resources enable it to achieve economies of scale like the large corporations with which it’s competing, ultimately just like those corporations it has to pay the bills – including the wage bill – by selling into food retail markets where the profit margins are wafer-thin. To keep up with the competition, it has to look to cost savings – and that wages bill will be among the first places it has to look. So in the end, just like the corporation, the co-op either squeezes more out of its labour force or mechanizes people out of work. This is basically the critique of co-ops in capitalist societies that’s long been made by radicals as diverse as Vladimir Lenin and Murray Bookchin. There’s much to be said for co-ops – I’m a member of a few myself – but they don’t fundamentally escape the economic pressures driving the initial problems they seek to redress, and are therefore prone to failure. Perhaps we could call this the problem of the ‘neoliberal cooperative’, and it’s where Game Newman seems to me quite likely to fail.

In Game Chayanov, ordinary folks likewise pool resources to get hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish whatever minimum cooperative or commons structures are necessary to manage the total landscape effectively (here again, they might easily fail), but then divide much of the land up among individuals or households with strong personal rights to farm it pretty much as they please, with enough land per household to provide largely for its needs but with mechanisms to prevent it concentrating in few hands over time.

This is a classic strategy of peasant societies historically, especially ones minimally coopted by centralized states. Unquestionably, it raises problems of its own, which I’ll come to in later posts. But this kind of small-scale household or family farming is emphatically not ‘neoliberal’. As I see it, Game Chayanov has none of the tendencies towards massification, labour-reduction and profit-seeking of the neoliberal cooperative, which is why for all its problems I think it’s a better model to try to build a fair, renewable, postcapitalist agriculture around.

It’s easy to get dazzled by words like ‘commons’ or ‘cooperative’ into assuming that economic models where such words appear front and centre are somehow more sharing and less capitalistic, more ultimately dedicated to building community cohesion or – if it’s not too schmaltzy – to building love than ones explicitly combining private and common property. But it ain’t necessarily so, and much depends on the larger political and economic field in which these economic models are at play. In a smoothly functioning capitalist economy set within a well-ordered global system of capitalist states, it’s debatable whether the ‘neoliberal cooperative’ or the ‘neoliberal peasant farm’ is preferable. But in the present reality of a failing capitalist economy and an increasingly disorderly system of states, I pin my colours to the Chayanovian mast.

A whole other set of issues that Chris Newman probes in his aforementioned commentaries is the question of race and the ‘whiteness’ of the small farm. We’ll come to that next.

 

Notes

  1. Chayanov. 1925 [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. University of Wisconsin Press; J. van der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants & the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto. Fernwood.

The awkward class

Time to talk about peasants, who I claim in Chapter 3 of my book A Small Farm Future will soon be returning to tend (or create) a small farm near you. Or may in fact include you or your descendants.

This claim is at odds with most of what’s been written about rural trends over the past century or so, along two dimensions. The first is historical: peasants will be liquidated by the march of progress. As Karl Kautsky (quoted on page 246 of my book) famously put it in his ‘agrarian question’ in 1899: “In what ways is capital taking hold of agriculture, revolutionizing it, smashing the old forms of production and of poverty and establishing the new ones that must succeed?”

The second dimension is sociological: internal tensions among small-scale farmers destabilize any coherent notion of ‘the peasantry’ as an enduring entity – an argument usually framed in relation to the separate class interests of ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ peasants. So in the standard view, for reasons both external and internal, peasants are on their way to being something else.

There’s no denying that recent history furnishes evidence for this. Capital has certainly done its share of revolutionizing and smashing peasant agriculture since Kautsky’s day, and plenty of rural class conflict has accompanied the process. But most people heralding the demise of peasantries have been enthusiastic cheerleaders for the process rather than disinterested observers, and it’s possible they’ve enthused a little too much.

On the one hand, Marxists like Kautsky have generally tried to divvy up peasantries into the more comfortable terrain of Marxism’s Ur-conflict between free-flowing capital and free-flowing labour, making landless or land-poor lower peasants over in the image of their preferred revolutionaries, the proletariat. On the other, market liberals have seen peasants as frustrated would-be capitalist entrepreneurs, waiting only for the right moment to escape the stasis of rural society and launch more lucrative careers. Given that the clash between Marxism and liberal capitalism was among the biggest historical scripts of the 20th century, and that peasantries were among the biggest demographic element in the period, it’s hardly surprising that both these forms of peasant-hustling were pretty successful in the short-term. All the major communist regimes of the period were built on the back of peasant participation, and so was a good deal of capitalist development.

Yet while few truly autarkic, pre-capitalist peasantries like the Finnish swiddeners I mentioned in my previous post have survived this 20th century politics, nevertheless small-scale farmers oriented to producing a livelihood directly from the land using low-energy, labour-intensive methods (let’s call them peasants) still haven’t been as comprehensively eradicated as the likes of Kautsky anticipated. Why this is so remains a matter of debate. Perhaps because of a residual peasantness, a grit in the gears of modernization or a light from the past that grimly refuses to die. Or perhaps because modernization has never been quite as successful at organizing economic life as its proponents claim, leaving people to make do with peasant forms of livelihood-making. Or because modernization has been all too successful, extracting what surplus it can from impoverished rural people and then abandoning them to take care of themselves as best they can. Or because impoverished people hedge their bets in the global economy, striving to retain a footing on rural land in case other livelihood strategies fail.

The last three of these four possibilities are basically variants of the same idea, each with a particular political spin. Modern scholarship in the peasant studies field has largely devoted itself to charting this exact terrain, inking the fine detail of the encounter between peasants and capitalist development in any number of specific times and places. Yet for all its achievements, I can’t help feeling that much of this scholarship will become increasingly irrelevant with the profound changes now occurring from climate change, energy descent, nature loss and political-economic crisis. These changes demand an update to Kautsky’s agrarian question, that I’d put like this: in what ways is capital losing control of agriculture and other spheres of production, and failing to revolutionize itself adequately with the result that it’s smashing itself – and what are the new forms of agriculture and production that will follow?

A dissident strand of agrarian populism within peasant studies has kept alive the notion that these new forms might look a lot like older ones – rural, low-capital, labour-intensive, small-scale peasant production as the necessary corrective for a waning urban industrialism. This is often dismissed as mere nostalgia for the past in the face of modern progress, or an ahistorical (‘essentialist’) romanticization of the peasantry as a kind of sui generis category. The sometime editor of the Journal of Peasant Studies, Terence Byres, criticized peasant populism on these grounds in a 2004 article, along lines that are still prevalent within the discipline: “To be ahistorical is to run the risk of failing to see history changing before one’s very eyes …. One also has a sense of circumstances being addressed, which, if they ever existed, are clearly in the past”.

Yet this becomes its own epitaph. A generation ago it might have been reasonable to dismiss the relevance of peasantries to the economic future, but history has indeed been changing before our eyes. This, as people often say, is the 21st century – and in the 21st century it’s likely that peasantization will become a major trend. This is not, it must be repeated, out of a desire to go ‘back’ to an idealized past but out of a desire to go ‘forward’ to a realistic and tolerable future.

But what exactly is it about peasant lifeways that makes them relevant again? Not some essence of unchanging peasantness, but basically three other things. First, rich local traditions in how to farm renewably with little capital or exogenous energy, from which much can be learned today as we face a future with similar constraints. Second, similarly rich local traditions – especially where aristocratic power has been weaker – in the forms of social organization conducive to a thriving agrarian society, from which we can also learn.

On this second point, for all the dismissiveness dished out to we agrarian populists for romanticizing peasantries, ironically it’s precisely the unromantic nature of these peasant traditions that commends them. As described in my book, numerous local farming societies thrashed out social arrangements for optimizing land use, sharing and husbanding resources, delivering welfare and managing intergenerational succession. Typically, these were hardbitten, long-term, real-world arrangements not based in the airy generalities of modern meta-theories like the market’s ‘invisible hand’ or the ‘collectivization of the means of production’. For sure, peasant social arrangements, like all social arrangements, weren’t perfect. And they were often offensive to modernist conceptions of the good life, whether capitalist, socialist or liberal – an issue I wrestle with in Part III of my book.

But whatever else they were, these arrangements are informative for the issues we will face in weathering the small farm future to come – more informative, at any rate, than the dubious verities of capitalism and communism we’ve inherited from modernist thought, as for example in these words of V.I. Lenin:

the peasantry dreamed of equal land tenure and no power on earth could have prevented them, when freed from landlordism and from the bourgeois parliamentary republican state, from trying to realize this dream. The proletarians said to the peasants: We shall help you to reach “ideal” capitalism, for equal tenure is the idealizing of capitalism from the point of view of small producers. At the same time we will prove to you its inadequacy and the necessity of passing to the cultivation of the land on a social basis1

There’s much in this rich passage to which I want to return in later posts. But for now I’ll just suggest that ‘the proletarians’ of 20th century communist regimes signally failed to prove the necessity of cultivating the land on a social basis (as opposed to mixed peasant economies of common and private tenure), and little now remains of their efforts on this front – a point that I think needs more serious analysis than it typically gets from those on the left who still herald the virtues of collective production and the vices of private property. At the same time, profit-oriented private capitalist farming has been ecologically and socially disastrous, and it seems clear that it can’t continue much longer.

Which is why I proclaim the return of the peasant in my book. Possibly I should have avoided the ‘p’ word altogether in view of its heavy historical baggage. But ultimately the baggage must be confronted, whatever words we use. And this brings us to the third relevant aspect of peasant societies, namely their status ordering.

The classical question animating so much of peasant studies, especially its Marxist versions, is how peasantries differentiate into separate status groups or classes in circumstances of capitalist economic integration. But the most urgent agrarian question before us today is the reverse: how non-peasants might aggregate into unified peasantries in circumstances of capitalist economic disintegration. I’m not suggesting there will be no class or status differentiation among future peasantries. On the contrary, I’m anxious to identify ways to prevent it – and a good deal of Parts III and IV of my book is devoted to that task, as I’ll outline in later posts. But here, I’ll just reiterate a simpler point made on page 95 of my book which is a necessary prior assumption for those posts: some people do actually want to be peasants, and in the future their numbers are likely to increase.

Notes

  1. V.I. Lenin The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky quoted in David Mitrany. Marx Against The Peasant (1951), pp.60-1.

Can the peasant speak?

I’ve now reached Chapter 3, ‘The return of the peasant’, in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m going to linger here for a few posts, even though it’s only a short chapter. I’ll begin at rather an oblique slant to the substance of the chapter by relating a story told to me by my friend P, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This photograph is of P’s grandfather, G, who was born in the province of Karelia, Eastern Finland, in 1889. At this time, Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire, and Russian Orthodox Christianity was prominent in Eastern Karelia. G’s ancestry in the immediate locality where he was born went back at least three generations, probably more. The subsistence-oriented swidden farming which we were recently discussing here (later transplanted to Appalachia by Scandinavian migrants) was a recent reality in this area. As P puts it, “this was a man whose roots were deep in the place that he came from. His cultural and farming practices were also deeply rooted in this landscape”.

G was the oldest of six children. When his father died in 1911 it fell to him to sort out the inheritance and allot the family land among his kinsfolk. G himself moved a little way from the village and established a new farm. In 1915 he got married, and between 1917 and 1937 the couple had nine children, two of whom died in infancy from pneumonia.

Swidden farming had been actively suppressed by the Finnish government in the mid-19th century as the country’s economy became increasingly connected with the wider world, and the timber resources of its wooded slopes imbued land with a higher monetary value than that represented in the crops of rye and oats that the swidden farmers grew to feed themselves. G’s farming career was built on these old and new foundations. The family grew cereals, vegetables, flax and hay, kept livestock and harvested wild fruits and fish for their own consumption, but also pursued market ventures to stay afloat in the newly monetized local economy.

In 1917, in the aftermath of war and revolution in Russia, Finland became independent and immediately plunged into a brutal civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions. P is unsure how this played out in his grandfather’s life, but there are family memories of famine during this time which were partially mitigated by their access to farmland. A few years after the civil war, a brother of G’s was shot dead by a policeman in a bar. As one of G’s daughters recalled the incident, “Uncle had been able to say ‘don’t shoot’ but the police at the time did not wait for explanations”. G assumed financial responsibility for the child of his slain brother.

In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and overran eastern Karelia. G’s family travelled west as war refugees in a goods train, while G himself packed up what he could from the farm into a horse-drawn cart and walked across the country with it to join them. Among new environs in Finland’s Lutheran west, G’s family and the family of one of his brothers were taken in by a local family in return for farm work. Later, the government allocated them some land in North Karelia to farm themselves. Around this time, G’s oldest son was hit by shrapnel in an explosion and permanently injured. This son’s wife died in childbirth. One of G’s daughters died of meningitis in the crowded home where they were living in exile.

In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland – temporarily allied with Nazi Germany – initially pushed Soviet forces out of the country. G and his family returned to their farm in eastern Karelia. The fighting continued. One of G’s daughters worked in civilian support of the war effort, including driving a wagon heroically under enemy fire to resupply frontline troops. Later, she was badly injured in a landmine explosion. As the Continuation War went against Finland, G and his family had to flee west again, using similar methods as before, with G once again walking across the country with a cart loaded with what he could rescue from the farm. After several vicissitudes, the family ended up back at the land they’d been given to the farm in north Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet-Finnish border was settled, with the family’s original farm and homeland in east Karelia now falling within Soviet territory and permanently lost to them. G continued farming the new land he’d been given in Lutheran north Karelia. The photograph you see was taken in 1950, at the wedding of one of G’s sons. G died nine years later, three years before his youngest daughter gave birth to my friend P in England.

P showed me the picture of his grandfather I’ve reproduced above, before telling me the tale of his life that I’ve related. We agreed that his face seems to hold a sadness, perhaps a grief. Another friend who was shown the picture said that G looked ‘defeated’.  He was, apparently, an untalkative man, and he’s now long dead. He cannot tell us his feelings, and for sure nobody else can either.

But such silences don’t stop us today from expressing our opinions on what peasant farmers like G and others for whom history provides no amplifier must have thought. A common talking point nowadays is that peasant life was and is one of utter misery and backbreaking labour that nobody would ever voluntarily undertake. On page 78 of my book I cite a few authors who’ve worked this particular seam. They’re not hard to find.

But to weigh in with my own voice in the face of G’s silence, I wonder if this is the story he would tell. For sure, there’s relentless work and now-preventable disease in his story (as there still is for too many people today), and there’s heavy responsibility to care for a wider family through uncertain times. But it’s surely worth heeding too the nature of those times. G was one of many who lived his life in the crosshairs of global ‘development’, and who farmed under the ill-starred sign of political forces much larger than their local worlds. A famine caused, as they usually are, by politics and not by ‘natural’ events, the loss and injury of family members to the hostile forces of the state (the army, the police), the loss of natal land beyond an uncrossable modern border, possibly the loss of religious and cultural orientation too, the gnawing uncertainties of war, refugeeism and reliance on strangers, the hard work not only of farming but of establishing a new farm, not once but repeatedly in the face of a changing world. New politics, new borders, new nationalisms, new histories cascading through the early twentieth century. I wonder if it was the strain of these things more than the familiar seasonal cycle of hard work on the farm that we see in G’s sad face.

We’ll never know. An unbridgeable and silent river of history divides our present world from the one that G knew. As I see it, the case for a turn to peasant farming today is about trying to meet the challenges of the present, not about trying to recross that river. But maybe we can meet those challenges better if we’re able to bear witness to the pain that history has caused to peasant farmers like G, and also if we’re able to acknowledge that in their ability to furnish a household livelihood in the face of difficult circumstances we might look to farmers like him as inspirations in the difficult journey that lies ahead for us, rather than as yesterday’s people remembered only in the silence of old photographs.