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.

The sheep sacrifice

Continuing my amble through my book A Small Farm Future, my next stop in Part I is Crisis #7 – Land (pp.43-51). There’s a specific aspect of this that’s topical at the moment here in the UK, so I’ll begin with that and work my way towards a more general conclusion that’s implicit in the book.

With a no deal Brexit looming and the Government’s farm subsidy regimen shifting towards payments only for delivering ‘public goods’, it looks like hard times may lie ahead for many commercial farmers in the UK, none more so than for upland livestock farmers. The UK is by far the EU’s largest sheep producer, and about a third of its production is exported, the great majority to other EU countries. So sheep farmers (primarily in the uplands) face a double blow of contracting markets and contracting farm support. I’m not sure exactly how that will play out, but maybe with farmers shooting a lot of next year’s lambs. I hope none of them end up shooting themselves.

The decline of the upland livestock industry will be celebrated by many in the (re)wilding movement, for whom Britain’s ‘sheepwrecked’ mountains have become the iconic example of misplaced agrarianism at the expense of wilderness. Without the intensive grazing pressure of sheep, the argument goes, the mountains would regain their tree cover, with numerous benefits for biodiversity, as well as lowland flood abatement. And instead of eking out a marginal economic existence as farmers, the people of the uplands could then earn better rewards as custodians of the rejuvenating wilderness and workers in the consequently growing tourist industry.

The rewilders surely have a point. Sheep stocking in the uplands is at a high level historically and there’s much to be said for reducing it and creating more complex silvopastoral upland landscapes. Arguably, this would more closely resemble the farmed upland landscapes of the past, when the mountain valleys would also have had a greater diversity of arable farming, horticulture and local crafts and industries, much of it devoted to local needs. What changed was less an enthusiasm among upland farmers to cram the hills with sheep than the dictates of central government policy, in the UK as in many other countries, which has generally pushed farmers to focus upon the single most advantageous and remunerative crop in their area to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s a danger that by design or default (re)wilding will figure as another top-down policy prescription imposed from afar, without connecting to local histories of mixed land use geared to feeding people locally.

This touches on debates about so-called ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ that I discuss under Crisis #7 in the book. Behind them lies a wider philosophical question of human ecology: which is preferable, a world of domesticated and urbanized humans experiencing unpeopled wilderness only as visitors and sojourners, or a world of rather wilder humans making modest livelihoods in rural spaces? And perhaps behind them too lies a matter of practical ecology sparked by the classic ecological question of why the world is green – that is, are plant-rich terrestrial landscapes preserved from the depredations of herbivorous animals top-down by predator control of the herbivores, or bottom-up by plant defences against herbivory?

I won’t dwell on all that here, but essentially I’m in the bottom-up camp. Share land, wild ourselves by learning to live in place, and don’t over-fetishise predators because plants can more or less take care of themselves. Still, in the short term I daresay that erstwhile farmers in the uplands will make a better living working as tour guides than they ever did as shepherds. In the present economy, herding people always pays better than herding livestock. But while they might be making a better living – and while some, I’m sure, will genuinely take to tourist work – I’m not convinced that many upland folks will be making a better livelihood, in the sense of participating in a way of life that’s deeply structured to the sustaining possibilities of the local landscape. And this, ultimately, is what seems most likely to endure. The present collapse of tourism due to Covid-19 is surely only the harbinger of a larger and longer collapse in the possibility that the wider economy can keep infusing places with wealth greatly beyond their local means.

For sure, people gain from participating in the wider economy and the services it provides. Doubtless there are few who would want to renounce all of it in what Emma Marris (who I quote on p.27 of my book) calls the ‘grand sacrifices’ involved in turning our backs on our contemporary high-energy, high-throughput society. But that society isn’t quite as paradisiacal as is often supposed, especially for those with a less advantageous place within it. And, however paradisiacal it is, it’s in any case unlikely to survive the numerous crises that I outline in Part I of my book.

Therefore, I think many of us certainly will need to make sacrifices. So perhaps it’s as well for us to ‘sacrifice’ in the original sense of the word – to make sacred. An awful lot of contemporary thought makes sacred urban, fluid, high-energy consumer culture. It’s time to put this romanticism aside. We now need to find ways to come to terms with both the opportunities and the constraints within local agroecosystems like the forgotten silvo-arable-pastoral systems of upland Britain, thereby making them sacred.

But with the sacred comes the profane. So we also need to think through the difficulties of small farm localism, just as the romantics of urban modernity need to think through the difficulties of their own vision. As to whether continuing with present high-energy, urbanizing, monoculturalizing trends involves more sacrifice than low-energy, decentralizing, landscape diversifying trends, it really depends on what you consider to be sacred.

Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.

 Notes

 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL; http://orgprints.org/32677/19/Willer-2018-global-data-biofach.pdf; http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.

Three acres and a cow

My title comes from a 19th century English song, which includes this verse…

If all the land in England was divided up quite fair / There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share / Well some have thousand acre farms which they have got somehow / But I’ll be satisfied to get three acres and a cow

…but more immediately, it comes from a great evening of folksong and storytelling I heard recently in which Robin Grey and Katherine Hallewell told – well, not quite the history of the world in 10½ blog posts so much as the history of the fight for access to land by ordinary people in Britain in 11 lovely folk songs. If you get a chance to see the show, I’d thoroughly recommend it (and for those in my neck of the woods, it’s returning to Frome on 10 March). It’s not quite as comprehensive as my recent historithon here at Small Farm Future, but it’s a darned sight more tuneful.

The main aim of this post, though, isn’t to talk about the show so much as to pick up on a couple of themes hanging over from various previous posts and post cycles. In particular, I want to address a point that Ruben made in a comment concerning the need for a sustainable post-capitalist society to produce an agrarian surplus in order to fund a division of labour and thus a viably diverse social order. I want to marry it with what I called my 99/1 test (in which a food-farm system is defined as sustainable if it can persist with 99% of food sourced from within 10 miles of any given retail point and with fossil energy use set at 1% of the current level). Clem suggested a 90/10 test might be more apposite, so I propose to (roughly) split the difference and apply a 95/5 test – though actually in the analysis here I’m going to ignore retail provenance altogether, implicitly assuming that it’s 100% local.

In later posts, I’ll discuss the sociological aspects of what such low energy post-capitalist farm societies might look like. But here I want to revisit my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex analysis and consider what such a society might look like out in the fields. Somewhat like three acres and a cow, as it turns out. Or at least three acres and a quarter of a cow.

I’ve identified two sources for current levels of in-field fossil energy use in British farming. This one reckons it at 17 litres of diesel per hectare per year, and this one at 127 litres – a rather alarming discrepancy. Ah well, let’s take the mean (72 litres) and then reduce it by 95%. That gives us about 3.6 litres of diesel to grow our crops each year on a nominal hectare. I’m going to assume two people working full-time year-round producing a basic range of crops appropriate to the southwest English climate to feed themselves and anyone else they can, given those diesel and labour parameters. And I’m going to assume they’ll be growing organically (no sneaky additional energy embodied in fertiliser). On that basis, what I’d probably do is grow a grass/clover ley which I’d till in with a small 2-wheel tractor and grow potatoes as my main staple crop (in reality I might grow some wheat as well, but my personal experiments with small-scale wheat growing haven’t amounted to much, and I don’t have good local yield figures for such systems). I know tillage isn’t exactly the flavour of the month at the moment and I’ll be talking more about that in my upcoming post on carbon farming, but my feeling is that in a super-low energy situation it’s probably the optimum solution to the equation of land, labour and yield. If you think you could do as well with a no till system, then fine – you can use your diesel for something else…such as hauling around all the compost you’ll most likely be making.

Anyway, so much for the tillage. The rest of my production would be done with hand (or foot) tools (I’m ignoring energy embodied in small tools, and the various bits of agri-plastic I’d undoubtedly be blagging for mulch). Plus whatever animal or human help I could muster. Note that my focus here is on producing a healthy subsistence, and not on high value leafy crops as is the present lot of most small-scale market growers.

OK, maybe I’m pushing the limits here but on that basis I think I could probably cultivate about a quarter of an acre (0.11ha) of potatoes as part of a seven course field rotation with a two year ley. I’d also grow a garden with six 20m beds, including one ley. I’d have a small fruit orchard of a little under 0.1ha, with some grazing beneath the trees. I’d have a 300m2 strawberry patch, a few bee hives, and a few hens. I’d also grow some mushrooms on logs. If that was pretty much the extent of my holding I wouldn’t have enough grazing for a dairy cow, but my orchard and leys would be enough for a quarter of a house cow so I’d share one (and the associated calf meat) with three other farmers. In practice, I’d probably grow a somewhat more diverse mixture of things (rather than, say, 300m2 of pure strawberries), but I think the above will do as an illustrative example.

So there we have it. That little lot should keep me and my beloved busy enough over a year.

If I plug all that into my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex spreadsheet, which has been sitting around looking reproachfully idle on my desktop for many months now, then we get the following expected average yields: about 2 tonnes of potatoes, 4 tonnes of cabbages, 0.2 tonnes of drying beans, 4 tonnes of carrots, 4 tonnes of squash, generally around 100kg of various garden vegetables, 0.5 tonnes of apples, 0.2 tonnes of strawberries, 67kg of hazels, 1250 eggs, 800 litres of milk, 70kg of beef, 10kg of chicken and game, and 25kg of honey. Perhaps a little too much to expect of two people with minimal fossil fuel inputs in an organic system, but I think possibly doable in a well-established and well-managed system. Comments welcome.

Adding up the total land take of the setup I described above turns out a figure of 0.92 hectares (2.3 acres). So if you added some space for a house, outbuildings, tracks, hedges and perhaps a bit of woodland, you’d be close to Robin and Katherine’s 3 acre figure, though sadly you’d only have quarter of a cow.

Setting those productivity figures against recommended yearly intakes across my five chosen nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) the surplus productivity of my two farmworkers varies across the indicators – the surplus is highest for Vitamin A, where they produce enough for the adequate nourishment of 209 souls, and lowest for energy, where they produce enough only for just over 11 people (11.5).

So taking that lowest figure of 11 per hectare as the productive limit of this system and assuming that all arable land is cultivated in this way we find that the system could feed 91% of the current population of the southwest and 75% of the current population of England as a whole. If we extend it into all the farmland currently down to permanent pasture (but not rough grazing) we could feed 310% of the current southwest population and 147% of the whole England population. This excludes the extra potential productivity from rough grazing, domestic gardens and other currently non-agricultural green spaces. In other words, feeding the country in this way is a doddle. The reason it meets nutritional requirements so comfortably in comparison to my previous ‘Peasants’ Republic of Wessex’ exercise is because in the latter case I went with a livestock-heavy system based on the existing balance of grassland and cropland, whereas here I’ve gone for a more George Monbiot-friendly system with minimal livestock. Though, unlike George’s preferred approach to meat, at least my livestock have legs – or one leg, anyway. To be honest, I think the kind of setup I’m describing here would be more likely to occur in low energy future scenarios than the livestock-heavy approach I previously took, though there’d still be a lot of room around the edges of it for domestic poultry, neighbourhood pig clubs etc. There’d probably need to be, since there’s not otherwise much usable fat or oil in this three acres diet. And rather than courting controversy as I did last time around by trying to produce a non-fossil fuel full energy budget for such a society, I’m drawn to the simplicity of this one. Assume 5% of current energy use across all sectors and go figure…

But I’d like to make a couple of brief remarks on how I’d go figure it. Farmers, like everyone else, generally take the easiest option available under the constraints they face. In situations where land is plentiful but labour is constrained (labour constraint being effectively the same as energy constraint) the easy option is meat-heavy pastoralism. In situations where land is constrained but labour is plentiful, the easy option is grain-heavy arable. In situations where both land and labour are constrained, as here, the easiest option would probably look something like what I’ve just described – a meat-light mixed cropping approach with as little arable as you can get away with, which would probably be a lot more than you’d ideally like.

Vaclav Smil writes that no country with an annual energy consumption under 5 GJ/person can guarantee the basic necessities of life to everyone, whereas some societies oriented to egalitarian resource distribution can provide for an adequate life at around 40-50 GJ/person1. If the UK’s total energy consumption was decreased by 95% it would put us at around 4.5 GJ/person.

The 95/5 test would seem to suggest a wicked, twisted road ahead. Maybe it’s too stringent? I’m somewhat agnostic about the shape of humanity’s energy future, but it never hurts to plan conservatively…

In terms of the farming population, two people feeding 11.5 people would give us 17% of the population directly working in farming, but if we calculate it on the basis of present labour norms with those aged <18 or >65 excluded from the labour force, the figure is about 31% in farming. If such a situation came to pass in practice I think we could relax the 18-65 active labourer definition a little, so perhaps we could assume farmers would constitute about 25% of the population – similar to current levels in countries like Iran, Ecuador, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. The current level in the UK is about 2%, though this isn’t really a comparable figure because we export a lot of the responsibility for producing our food to farmers in other countries. Still, if we decided that we should produce all our food in this way, we’d have to start shifting about 23 people out of every 100 from their current employment into farming. Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.

Incidentally, I shall be on internet detox over the weekend so no further comments or responses from me until next week.

Notes

  1. Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.358ff.

Saving George Monbiot

Since I’m (almost) halfway through my ‘history of the world’ blog cycle, I thought I’d take a halftime break and write about something else this week. Especially since an urgent task has suddenly presented itself to me – the need to save George Monbiot from becoming an ecomodernist. Now, let me start by saying that, week in week out for more years than I care to remember, George has been almost a lone voice in the mainstream British media putting the case thoughtfully and iconoclastically for radical, egalitarian and environmental alternatives to a status quo that’s so fawningly celebrated by the majority of his journalistic colleagues. He’s even publicly endorsed my critiques of ecomodernism. So as far as I’m concerned he has a lot of credibility in the bank, and I’m not one to fulminate against him too much just because I disagree with him over this or that issue. But when it comes to his recent article enthusing about the advent of artificial meat as the welcome death knell for livestock farming…George, you’re scaring me, man.

Actually, I agree with most of the premises in George’s article – the present global livestock industry involves barbarous cruelty to farm animals, is a grossly inefficient way of producing protein and is not, contrary to ‘carbon farming’ claims, a good way of mitigating climate change. However, I don’t agree with his conclusion that we should stop farming animals, for reasons that I’ll set out below and that will also hopefully illuminate some wider themes – including those implicit in a brief Twitter exchange I had with Marc Brazeau, another antsy online ecomodernist, who was effectively challenging advocates of ‘alternative’ farming to put up some quantitative metrics by which to judge their approach or else clear the way for the ecomodernist onslaught represented by intensive conventional arable farming on the grounds of its superior sustainability. Which is pretty much the same as George’s argument.

So to summarise so far, rather than the Spielberg reference of my title, perhaps the strapline for this piece should paraphrase a famous quote from another old film – Flash Gordon, that marvellous bit of 1980s schlock: “George, George, I love you – but I only have fourteen paragraphs to save you from the ecomodernists”. And here they are:

1. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle, weighing up whether it’s environmentally sounder to buy a vegetarian dinner or that big juicy steak, the answer in that context is almost always going to be the vegetarian dinner. I say “in that context” because the choice is already framed by numerous background assumptions, which I’d summarise as the ‘ethics of the shopping aisle’. The ethics of the shopping aisle basically accepts that the consumer is the endpoint of a vast global corporate food system that relies on copious fossil fuel inputs across the entire production chain, and it also basically accepts that this system will continue in the long-term. If you don’t accept those propositions, you might imagine yourself instead living in a farm society in which people are producing their food from a few acres with minimal exogenous energy sources available to them. In these circumstances, you would probably grow crops in a rotation that included ruminant-grazed legume-rich grass leys and make use of the milk, meat, traction and fibre provided by the ruminants. You would probably also keep some poultry and pigs near the house or in the woodlands, to turn waste food, weeds and invertebrate pests into useful food. Almost certainly, you’d produce and eat less meat than we presently do in the UK. But, almost certainly too, you’d produce and eat some meat. I take the view that this omnivorous lifestyle is a better, and more sustainable, one than the vegan lifestyle commended by the ethics of the shopping aisle. Whether it’s better or not, I suspect it may be the best option available to us in a likely low-energy future – a future we’ll land in more easily if we prepare for it now. So I’d be willing to trade off a fair amount of ‘inefficient’ mixed organic agriculture in the present as a lead-in to a likely unavoidable mixed organic agriculture of the future.

2. I’d question his figures a little, but I wouldn’t dispute George’s general point that grazing is much less productive acre for acre than arable farming (although in the mixed organic ley farming described above the livestock add to, rather than subtract from, the productivity). But where is he going with all these figures about superior arable yields? There’s no critique of the productivist assumption that more is always better in his article. “One study,” he writes, “suggests that if we were all to switch to a plant-based diet, 15m hectares of land in Britain currently used for farming could be returned to nature”. But of course there’s no guarantee that it would – it might equally be turned over to car parks, golf courses or second homes. Or it might fuel further population growth, as he implicitly admits by arguing that the existing agricultural area could feed 200 million vegans. History would certainly suggest that rising agricultural productivity fuels population growth. Where’s the evidence that ‘nature’ would be the beneficiary here? There’s no theory of political economy behind George’s analysis to explain why maximising yields per hectare is the optimal agricultural choice.

3. And this sharp differentiation between farmland and ‘nature’ takes us into some murky terrain. As ecologist Joern Fischer has exasperatedly pleaded, people should stop using the simplistic duality of ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ as the key trade-off in choosing between agroecosystems. In some situations it makes sense to increase productivity, in others to decrease it, and in others still productivity isn’t the main issue at all. Is it ecologically optimal to give over large areas completely to wilderness by developing intensive agriculture in concentrated areas, or is it better to create a matrix of less intensive agroecological corridors1? These are complex and context-specific questions. The land sparing/sharing debate echoes the ‘single large or several small’ nature reserve debate of the 1970s, on which Fischer says ecologists wasted a decade of research energy. He fears that we risk the same fate with the sparing/sharing debate. And on this point, George, you’re not helping. As you’ve said yourself it’s not a case of either/or – it’s a case of both/and, and of other things as well.

4. Besides which, the idea that by stopping farming we’re ‘returning land to nature’ is problematic because nature hasn’t left our farms – though I’ll admit that it’s flouncing towards the exit gate on some of them. If you want to appreciate, explore, or get to understand nature as recommended by the Ecomodernist Manifesto, all you need is a magnifying glass and a few teaspoonfuls of soil from the fields (though you’ll have to look harder on the intensive arable farms that George recommends…and if you live in the UK you’ll have to go a long way to find the soya farms he favours). But I don’t think this is the kind of nature George has in mind – there’s a sense at play in his article that there’s something intrinsically superior about a nature that’s uninhabited by humans, probably one with large iconic predatory mammals, than the kind of nature to be found on the average farm. But this, ironically, is surely something of a human affectation – there’s nothing in the fabric of the universe to say that a place that lacks humans is better than one that does not. I’m not against preserving tracts of true wilderness. But how to trade it off against human agroecosystems is not straightforward.

5. Here’s my take on that trade-off, however. A world with more wilderness and a stronger focus on large-scale, input-intensive arable farming is likely to be less stable, less sustainable and less nature-friendly than one with less wilderness and more small-scale, labour-intensive mixed organic farming. People in landscapes of the latter kind are more likely to actually inhabit them, and rely upon them. They therefore have a greater chance of recognising when their activities are having deleterious effects, and doing something about it. People in landscapes of the former kind don’t inhabit them and don’t enjoy this kind of feedback – mostly, they’re tourists, consumers or system functionaries who have less stake in overall system health. They’re shoppers in the aisle.

6. A farm is also a system, whose health needs to be safeguarded. Generally, growing the same handful of arable crops that give maximum yields of protein or carbohydrate year after year is not a good way of safeguarding farm or soil health. There’s a lot to be said for a cropland rotation that includes legume-rich grass leys. And if you grow legume-rich grass leys, then you should really grow some livestock too.

7. Not many people in the contemporary world can truly dwell in the house of ‘nature’ when it’s defined as per George and the ecomodernists as a habitat that isn’t a farm. Not many of us, that is to say, can hope to subsist by hunting and foraging. I don’t dismiss the benefits that we can derive from visiting these wild, not-farm places as tourists or TV viewers, but I don’t see it as a major plank of beneficial interaction with the biosphere for contemporary humanity either. A lot of us can, however, interact beneficially with animals as key species for our self-provisioning with food and fibre – a lot more of us than at present if government policies would only allow it. Many of us could raise bees, poultry or rabbits, and some of us could raise pigs, sheep and cattle. You want to interact with the beauties of nature and the mysteries of the universe? Let me put it like this – my own two most memorable animal encounters of this sort were watching a leopard kill an antelope, and helping birth a lamb for the first time from my small flock of sheep, a lamb that I later ate with friends and family. Both amazing, but one of them an essentially idle tourist spectacle, the other part of an ongoing, life-sustaining practice.

8. Identifying livestock farming as a primary cause of environmental degradation is largely a diversion. The real problems, as George has admirably documented in some of his other writings, are the gross disparities in the distribution of economic resources between people and between countries, and the abundance of polluting fossil energy. This includes the abundance of polluting fossil energy required to produce the synthetic fertilisers that help make the kind of arable yield figures George cites so impressive. Address those two problems, and livestock farming will find its appropriate level as part of our ecological solutions and not, as at present, part of our ecological problems2.

9. It seems rather early to be heralding artificial meat as the solution to our problems. As I understand it, at present it’s not even less energy-intensive than farmed meat. I don’t doubt that eventually it will be – though I hope we’ll keep an eye not only on its full life-cycle costs but also on its cascading social effects so that it doesn’t go the way of driverless electric cars and 3D printing as a cipher of ecomodernist argumentation of the form: “Efficient new technology X shows that time-honoured method Y must now be jettisoned”. George has written some great critiques of ecomodernism along such lines, so I can only think that his article strapline “as the artificial meat industry grows, the last argument for farming animals has now collapsed” was written by some hapless sub-editor, and not by the man himself. Say that it’s so, George!

10. Ecomodernists don’t like the precautionary principle, but I’m personally unwilling to substantially abandon it (just as a precaution, you understand). I’m unconvinced that artificial meat will prove to be the nutritional equal of its (well-)farmed counterparts any more than the margarines of the 1970s proved to be the nutritional equal of butter – and I suspect that people rich enough to buy farmed (or wild) meat will continue to do so, so that poor quality artificial meat will become the preserve of the poor (along with conflicted vegans). The result could be to add further fuel to the fire of the health gap between rich and poor, and with no net reduction of farmland in favour of ‘nature’. It doesn’t have to be that way…

11. I can’t help feeling that for want of any considered analysis of political economy the ecomodernists (and George in his offending article, though not elsewhere in his writings) are constructing a world that, in the unlikely event it works as intended, enables the wealthy few to experience wilderness, country living and proper meat, while the hoi polloi have to make do with various simulacra of the same, which are sugar-coated as ‘modern’, high tech and thus superior. Enough of this. Small Farm Future says cut out the fossil fuels, spread the land and its resources equitably and the livestock issue will sort itself out. Does that make for plausible policy? Well, maybe not for tomorrow, but perhaps for the day after tomorrow, at least in the Jared Diamond sense3. More plausible at any rate than ecomodernist narratives of nuclear-fuelled meat for all. In the meantime, we need to keep the farm skills and the bloodlines going, and stop the ethics of the shopping aisle from undermining proper ways of farming.

12. In moist climates like the UK there is often, to oversimplify, an ecological gradation and temporal progression from high-disturbance/high-nutrient habitats to low-disturbance/low-nutrient habitats. Human agriculture essentially involves trying to hold up that progression – stopping cropland from becoming grassland, and stopping grassland from becoming woodland. It does this because per acre crop yields are higher the closer you are to the high-disturbance/high-nutrient point of the progression – and, as George rightly suggests, crop yield is an important consideration. But it’s not the only one. Other considerations include crop and wild biodiversity, the nutritional properties of the food produced, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the ecosystems in question, and the work and other resource inputs involved in maintaining them. Again to oversimplify, I’d suggest that these considerations generally all point in the other direction, favouring grassland over cropland and woodland over grassland. And ultimately all of these considerations are subsumed into a wider one – what sort of life do we want to lead? It’s a complex set of trade-offs and not one that, in my opinion, lends itself to single and simple resolutions favouring more soya, more artificial meat, more urbanisation and more untrammelled wilderness of the kind George proposes.

13. This brings me to Marc Brazeau’s argument that the food movement should commit to sustainability based on metrics rather than to what he calls “feelings, hand waving and magical thinking”. Well…the notion that we can choose the kind of farms we want and therefore the kind of society we want based on quantitative metrics strikes me as magical thinking of the highest order – magical thinking of the same kind that leads George to proceed from soya yields to pronouncing the death of livestock farming. The questions we should be asking are how can I lead a good and meaningful life, how can I reconcile my answer with the different answers that other people come up with, and how might expected or unexpected future events complicate those answers? The notion that we can devise some kind of correct quantitative answer to these ineffable questions is, frankly, ludicrous – one born from the weird cult of the modern that thinks cost-benefit analysis or lifecycle analysis represents some kind of Solomonic truth. I don’t deny that such metrics have their uses, but not if they’re used to ‘prove’ a preconceived worldview, as I think is the case with both Brazeau’s and Monbiot’s interventions. So my first inclination is not to get caught up in these number wars. But I don’t like to duck a challenge, so let me stick my neck out and suggest a couple of metrics. First, take any contemporary farming method, then reduce its permissible fossil energy use by 99% from its current level and ask if it would be possible to continue farming more or less in the same way. Second, take any contemporary food retail method, then reduce the proportion of items produced more than 10 miles from the point of retail sale to a maximum of 1% and ask if it would be possible to continue farming in the area in more or less the same way. If the answer to either question is no, then my metrics would suggest that the extant farming system is probably not sustainable.

14. So there you have it. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle and want to make the most sustainable choice – maybe listen to George and put that meat back on the shelf, but do try to support your local small-scale mixed organic farmers because someday you might need them. If you’re standing out on your field and want to make the most sustainable choice – don’t listen to George, and get yourself some livestock. If you want to think about food systems in the abstract and are seeking an appropriately precautionary food sustainability metric, I offer you the Small Farm Future 99/1 test. And if you’re George Monbiot – please don’t succumb to the dark side of the force. Go into the wilderness and let the devil tempt you if you must, but come back to us. We need you.

PS. In view of Miles King’s interesting comments below, I added a picture of an experimental wood pasture, Vallis Veg style.

Notes

  1. On this point see I.Perfecto et al. 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan.
  2. For an argument along these lines see S.Fairlie. 2016. ‘Meat tax’ The Land 19: 33-6.
  3. J.Diamond. 2013. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Allen Lane.

Mixed messages

Well, it’s busy times here at Vallis Veg so I’m just going to offer a brief news roundup for this week’s post.

I spent last weekend at the West Country Scythe Fair and the associated Land Skills day sponsored by the Land Workers’ Alliance, where I ran a session on small-scale mixed farming. Traditional (peasant) farming systems in most parts of the world usually involve a mixed farming strategy (crops and livestock), but commercial farming today rarely does – notwithstanding the ongoing practice of combining dairy with arable in conventional systems, which is better than nothing. A typical traditional mixed system involves ruminants grazing temporary clover-rich grass leys (the fertility-making part of the system), which are then ploughed for cropping (the fertility-taking part of the system). The other livestock (pigs and poultry, mostly – but let’s not forget our invertebrate friends, like bees and worms) fit in around the edges of the system, tapping nutrients that might otherwise go to waste. And the motive power of the animals, if carefully managed, delivers various benefits around the farm.

Nowadays, we’re swimming in a sea of manufactured nitrates and mined phosphates that undercuts the value of the traditional mixed farm (and also has significant external costs upstream and downstream). Even organic growers who don’t apply these products directly often rely implicitly on the mountains of manure or municipal compost made possible by the synthetic nitrogen economy and the land uses it permits. Cheap fossil energy likewise undercuts the careful nutrient cycling and motive capacities of farm livestock that are part of traditional mixed farming strategies.

My guess is that traditional mixed farming strategies will come into their own again if, as seems likely, we move towards a more energy and phosphate constrained future. But it’s easier to devise a mixed system on a broad-scale arable farm, where you can alternate between grazed ley and ploughed cropland. My main interest these days is in promoting smallholding-based, subsistence-oriented farming, preferably one involving no or low levels of tillage, achieved without herbicide. A common situation here is one like my holding – intensively cropped garden beds, surrounded by permanent pasture – and it’s harder in this system to arrange the nutrient transfer between grassland and cropland. You can, of course, confine the livestock on conserved forage and collect the manure that way – though I prefer a low input-low output system with the livestock out on the grass as much as possible. Generally, it’s not really feasible to bring them directly into the cropped system.

On the upside, a garden grown for personal subsistence with little off-farm nutrient leakage doesn’t require that much fertility input, so the problems aren’t insurmountable. I had some interesting conversations at the Skills Day with enthusiasts of regenerative agriculture – which I’ve been slightly sceptical of, perhaps as a result of my aversion to gurus and the extravagant claims sometimes made by them or on their behalf. But perhaps I need to rethink this – the idea of a no till subsistence garden with a flourishing soil biota nourished by on-farm resources is an appealing one, and it shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. All suggestions gratefully considered.

Another set of issues we discussed is the mob-stocking approach advocated by the likes of Joel Salatin (really, I suppose, just an intensification of traditional rotational grazing systems). Again, I’ve always been slightly sceptical – partly because of my guru-phobia, partly because it looks like a lot of work for limited rewards, and partly because when I tried it my sheep were utterly impervious to electric fencing, fencing being quite an issue for the small-scale farmer needing to enclose small paddocks. It’s hard to see how to do it economically with any method other than electric fencing. In this respect, sheep are probably much more troublesome than cattle – though one or two people at the Skills Day were unflappably optimistic about the possibilities of electrically-fenced sheep, so perhaps I’ll give it another go. I certainly don’t feel that the present state of my pastures reflects especially well on my farming skills, so I need to do something different. Again, on a bigger scale, there’s a lot to be said for alternating between sheep and cattle (worm burdens are at issue here), but it’s harder to do this on small scales.

One of the easiest livestock options for the small farmer is the household pig or hens, fed substantially from food waste. Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste – which strikes me as a fine indicator of how badly wrong our contemporary ecological politics have become.

Ah, politics. Well, in other news a major ‘mixed message’ that’s come through recently is the general election result. Not since 2005 has the British public convincingly endorsed a single political party. Maybe it’s time for a bit more mixture, some cross-party collaboration to fit the public mood? Corbyn’s achievement in the teeth of a divided party and a hostile media is impressive. For me, the best thing about it is that it scotches the mantra that only centrist, middle-of-the-road policies and candidates can achieve electoral success. So although I’d argue as per recent discussions on this site that none of the formal political parties are fully engaging with the issues that really matter, this result encourages me that eventually they might.

Part of that recent discussion here included David’s comment that I should devote less attention to politics. And here I am talking about the general election….I guess what I’d say is that it depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. I don’t find the daily tittle-tattle of professional politics especially interesting or relevant to much that matters, but I don’t think I give it much attention on this blog. I do think the broad outcomes of electoral politics matter, even if all the party platforms fail to a greater or lesser extent to engage with the most pressing issues we face. But as to politics in general, this surely is absolutely crucial to the possibilities for a small farm/sustainable future. It’s the difference between a few visionaries/misfits scraping around at the edges of the business-as-usual world, and actually creating a viable agrarian society. If, for example, we’d like to see more of the mixed farming systems I was discussing above, then the only way it’ll happen is if we engage somehow with the political process to make it happen. My main interest isn’t with formal party politics (though that’s certainly one dimension of activism) but with the possibilities of building a movement (from a low base, I admit) for a sustainable agrarian society. Hence my position in my recent debate with Malcolm Ramsay about his proposed changes to property law. I can’t see these happening unless they’re articulated within a political movement with associated views on the way that class and power operate in contemporary society. Articulating such views as best I can feels to me a worthy enterprise for this blog.

Those, at any rate, are my principles. But like Groucho Marx, if you don’t like them maybe I could find some others. So I’d welcome any comments…but I’m going to be off in the internet-free wilds again for a few days, so please excuse me if I don’t reply until later next week.

Songs of the uplands

I recently mentioned the strange phenomenon of those political radicals and environmentalists who reserve their keenest barbs for members of their own tribe. Well, in this post I’m going to engage with a radical environmentalist I greatly admire, one who mostly avoids internecine conflict of that sort and keeps his sights appropriately trained on the real enemy. And, yep, you guessed it – I’m going to criticise him.

But not, I hope, in an especially negative way. George Monbiot – for indeed, it is he – has made a strong case against sheep farming in the UK in general, and upland sheep farming in particular, arguing that sheep occupy a large proportion of Britain’s uplands at considerable expense to the public purse in the form of farm subsidies, while providing very little food and creating severe environmental problems – notably in preventing the tree cover that could help both in limiting the water runoff that causes flooding problems in the lowlands and in promoting the re-emergence of indigenous wildlife, two causes for which he’s advocated with commendable passion and acuity.

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I’ve written before on this issue, but I recently exchanged a few comments with George about it on Twitter, which is absolutely the worst place to debate anything1. So here I offer you what I hope reads as a sympathetic critique, or at least a questioning, of his case against upland sheep farming. It’s not that I think he’s necessarily wrong. I think he could well be right, or at least mostly right. I’m pretty sure he’s done more thinking and more research on the issue than I have, and I’m glad he’s raised it and spoken up for rewilding, or ‘wilding’ at any rate – a cause for which I have a lot of sympathy. It’s just that there are various aspects of his case that don’t quite convince me, a few points I think he hasn’t addressed, and a few others where the implications seem to me more complicated than he supposes. My aim isn’t to refute the case against upland pastoralism, but ideally to help make it more refined.

In my review of George’s book How Did We Get Into This Mess I made the point that there’s a tension in it between the perspective of the indigene trying to figure out how to make a living from the land, and that of the rational-bureaucratic planner trying to figure out how to deliver services to the existing population. That wasn’t intended as a criticism – on the contrary, I think it’s a credit to him as a mainstream commentator that he should even be thinking about an indigenous self-provisioning perspective. But it’s that self-provisioning perspective that mostly animates my thinking on upland pastoralism, whereas I think his critique of ‘sheepwrecking’ mostly arises from a rational service-delivery perspective. And therein, I think, lies most of the disagreement. In a crowded modern country, I think it’s impossible not to take a rational service-delivery perspective when it comes to policy prescription. On the other hand, if that perspective consistently crowds out the voice of the denizen, the self-provisioner – as it usually does – then I suspect we’re condemned to endlessly replicate the problems we’re trying to solve. And there you have the generality of it. But let me try to outline some specifics.

1. The Golden Rice corner: George points out that a huge area of Britain, especially upland Britain, is devoted to raising sheep, and yet sheep meat furnishes only a small proportion of our diet. The figure he cites is about a 50% agricultural land take for sheep, which contributes only about 1.2% to our diet. I’m shortly going to question that figure, but I’d accept that the general case he makes is almost unarguable. You can grow way, way more food per acre by tending wheat in the lowlands than by tending sheep in the uplands. But if you push that argument to its logical conclusion, you end up boxing yourself into what I’d call the golden rice corner. Why not restrict ourselves to growing what’s maximally productive of calories per acre (in Britain that would basically be wheat or potatoes) and leave it at that? Why not stop farming the lowlands too and import food from places that can grow it still more efficiently?

OK, so George doesn’t in fact push his argument that far, and I think he’s (partly) right to emphasise how pitifully productive sheep-farming is compared to lowland wheat. What he actually says is  “sheep occupy roughly the same amount of land as is used to grow all the cereals, oilseeds, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and other crops this country produces”, but we need to bear in mind that the country doesn’t produce much of the fruit and vegetables it consumes, and that these are also quite low in calorific value per unit area: almost 80% of Britain’s cropland is devoted to growing just three crops (wheat, barley and oilseed rape), and more than half of that 80% is wheat – so I’d suggest the comparison he’s making is effectively between sheep and wheat. But the bald sheep-wheat comparison doesn’t really help us decide how much land we should ‘spare’ by growing wheat, and how much we should spread out and diversify our cropping in accordance with the land uses most locally appropriate. The high per hectare productivity of cereals partly stems from the fossil-fuel intensive inputs involved in arable farming – and, as George himself has elsewhere argued, perhaps these fuels should really be left in the ground. If we did so, arable yields would decline and we’d need grass-clover leys in the crop rotation – which would best be grazed by ruminants such as, er, sheep. And if you really push back on energy intensity, then human labour input starts to be an issue – at which point the case for pastoralism strengthens. As things stand, Britain could just about feed itself with a purely organic arable agriculture, based on 50% cropland leys – admittedly, here we’d be talking about a lowland ley farming focused mostly on dairy cattle rather than sheep, but my point is that cropland/grassland productivity ratios are something of a moveable feast.

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2. Calories, schmalories: when it comes to the aforementioned pitifulness of sheep productivity identified by George, I do think his choice of data casts sheep in an especially bad light. First, there’s the fossil energy intensity point I just made above. And then there’s the fact that George focuses only on food energy, which is but one of the many things people need from the food they eat. I concede it’s an important one, though there are those who argue that getting it from high productivity staples rich in simple carbohydrates is not nutritionally optimal. In any case, there are things you can get from sheep meat like Vitamin A that you won’t get from wheat or potatoes. That’s not to say that upland sheep farming is necessarily the best way of getting them. Still, the point is that the nutritional benefits of our food aren’t reducible to calorie-by-calorie comparisons (incidentally, the calorific value that George uses for sheep meat is a tad lower than the one I generally use, derived from McCance and Widdowson). If we were seeking national food self-sufficiency in Britain – particularly in energy-constrained scenarios with limited synthetic fertiliser – then getting enough dietary fat becomes quite an issue (unless we grew a lot of organic oilseed rape, which we probably shouldn’t). And then the case for sheep would start looking better.

Another issue with George’s calorific measure is that he looks at how many calories people actually consume (including in food imports) to show what a small proportion is furnished by sheep. That figure turns out at about 3,500 calories per person per day – about 1,000 calories more than nutritionists recommend. We know that obesity is a major contemporary issue, so I’d suggest a more apposite denominator might be how much we ought to be consuming.

There’s also the issue of mutton and offal – I’m not sure how much of this potential yield from British grass finds its way onto our plates. I suspect not much – and consumer taste is not the fault of the grazier. Having proudly produced my own home-made haggis for the first time recently from the offal of my slaughter lambs, I’d like to raise the question of what George’s analysis would look like if his sheep production figures were fully haggisified.

Maybe these various data corrections I’m suggesting wouldn’t change the land use/productivity ratio enough to convince George and his supporters to moderate their views – in which case, fine. But I think they should be in there.

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3. Only disconnect: as every statistician knows, the more you aggregate data, the more you conceal underlying variability. Let me go with my haggis example and – notorious socialist that I am – renationalise the data by allocating out the sheep meat between the populations of Scotland and England in accordance with the quantities of sheep grazing in the two countries. Doing that, we find that in Scotland sheep meat produces 14% of the population’s calorific requirements from 49% of its agricultural land (mostly of the poorer quality), and English sheep meat produces 0.1% of its population’s calorific requirements from 6% of its agricultural land (ditto). I’m not saying that this necessarily negates George’s overall argument, but it does improve the look of the figures a bit.

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4. The sheep pyramid: although it’s true that upland sheep aren’t very productive of meat, that’s not really their main purpose. Their main purpose is to provide breeding stock with the good characteristics of upland breeds (hardiness, milkiness, easy-lambing, good mothering etc.) which, when combined with meaty lowland breeds, optimises productivity – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’. In that sense, there’s a need to see upland sheep farming more holistically in symbiosis with lowland grass as an important part of an optimised system of national flock management. True, you could probably lose a lot of upland acres without affecting total productivity or flock characteristics a great deal, but you would lose something, and it would be a good idea to figure this somehow into the considerations.

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5. Defending the commons: read virtually any environmentalist treatise these days and odds are that’ll it wax lyrical about the commons as a vital way of managing society’s resources effectively (perhaps a little too lyrical, as I’ve argued here), and it’ll probably bemoan the way that modern industrial society rode roughshod over the commons of the past. Well, about a quarter of Britain’s (upland) rough grazing is managed as commons – pretty much the only functioning agricultural commons we still have, and with a finely-graded agricultural way of life attached to it. I’m not saying that it should be preserved in aspic just for that reason if other imperatives present themselves. But I am saying that people ought to think carefully before consigning it to oblivion out of some perceived greater contemporary need. It would be very easy to venerate commoners of the past whose voices are lost to us and bewail the forces that overwhelmed them due to their putative inefficiency…and then to visit the same fate on contemporary people for the exact same reason. And these would be real, complex, ornery, flesh-and-blood people, who don’t necessarily sing to the same tune as us. That’s long been the fate of many a peasant farming community, and it surely delivers a historical lesson worth pondering. It’s true that there may be more and better jobs available for upland residents in tourism than in sheep-farming in a post-pastoral, rewilded future. I’m just not sure that in the long run an economy based around a pastoral heritage is better than one based on actual pastoralism.

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6. The destruction of the kingdom: …and talking of pastoral heritage, I do feel the need to take issue somewhat with George’s historical take on pastoralism, in which he blames Theocritus for inventing in the third century BC the pastoral literary tradition that associates sheep-keeping with virtue, tracing it in Britain through what he calls the “beautiful nonsense” of the Elizabethan poets to contemporary television programmes exalting a country life of sheepdog trials, adorable lambs and so forth.

In George’s alternative history, sheep occupy a malevolent role as shock troops of enclosure, dispossessing indigenous peasantries, who were providing for themselves, in favour of a monocultural ovine cash-crop. Well, there’s certainly some truth in that. Then again, there’s always been an oscillation between grassland and cropland in British history, with complex implications for agricultural output and social relations. Elizabethan poets may have exalted pastoralism, but Elizabethan statesmen did not: converting cropland to pasture was denounced in 1597 as a “turning of the earth to sloth and idleness”. In 1601, William Cecil said “whosoever doth not maintain the plough destroys this kingdom”2. Whereas now the plough itself is regarded as a destroyer, and the issue of which kind of farming is most carbon-and-wildlife friendly – grassland or cropland – gets ever more baroque.

Another point worth making is that the late medieval and early modern turn to commercial sheep-farming by the aristocracy led to a release of peasants from corvée arable labour on the demesnes, which arguably fostered the rise of an independent yeomanry3. There is neither crop nor beast which can be allotted the status of an unalloyed historical bad. Well, maybe sugar? Anyway, if there’s a case against sheep, it has to be a contemporary case. History has got nothing to do with it. Though I’m loth myself to underestimate the importance of the accumulated cultural capital in sheepdog trials, livestock markets and the plethora of finely adapted sheep breeds. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about nostalgia or television programmes – it’s about the possible lives that we can lead, which are necessarily built on the shoulders of our forebears and can easily be diminished when we turn our backs too readily on their achievements.

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7. Aiming high by aiming low: I think I get George’s point about targeting the uplands for rewilding – they don’t produce much food, so why not devote them to something else? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be the case that these areas are among the least propitious for wildlife for the same reasons that they’re the least propitious for farming? If rewilding is the name of the game, why not aim higher by first developing proposals for lowland rewilding, where there are richer possibilities which will be better integrated with where most people live? After all, lowland arable deserts are no less dreary than upland grass deserts, are equally if not more destructive of wildlife, and produce an over-abundance of commodity crops that aren’t good for us. My alternative proposal, which I’ve been examining in some detail in my Peasant Republic of Wessex series, would be to look to feed ourselves first with vegetables and fruit, second with grass-fed and waste-fed livestock, and only third with starchy arable staple crops to make up the shortfall – with almost no place at all for grain-fed meat. I’d keep most of the grassy uplands for meat and reduce lowland arable as much as possible, starting my rewilding there. Ultimately, to feed the nation you’d probably have to trade off some lowland productivity for some rewilding, but why not at least start there?

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8. Songs of the uplands: a rare breed hoop: As I’ve already said, I’m sympathetic to the idea of rewilding, but I have a nagging feeling that the general public might get behind it as ‘a good thing’ without much clarity of objective, while continuing to know or care very little about how their food is produced. This will buttress the land sparing/sharing tension I’ve mentioned – big agri in the lowlands, no agri in the uplands. Or, worse, ‘wild’ uplands in Britain and lots of imported lamb from places like New Zealand that didn’t even have terrestrial mammals prior to human colonisation. So I’d like to know more about the kinds of wildness the re-wilders are proposing and why they want it. I’m not necessarily opposed to it – I appreciate how degraded the wild places are compared to the past – but how do we evaluate its qualities and trade them off against present agricultural practices? I’m less inclined than George to write off the symbiosis of human, dog and sheep in upland pastoralism. I see it as a thing of beauty, another fine song of the uplands, just as the song of eagle, marten or rowan has its beauty. I don’t dispute that upland sheep farming isn’t always beautiful – I agree that it’s possible for land indeed to be ‘sheepwrecked’. Still, wilding the uplands involves making a human value judgment that the songs of the wild (and which songs, exactly…?) are so superior to the song of the shepherd that it justifies essentially terminating a historic upland industry. It’s a strong claim – maybe a plausible one, I’m not sure. I think I’d like to hear a lot more about the wilding that’s planned and its putative advantages.

So how about this as an interim measure to test the public’s resolve? Before adopting full-on, sheep-vanquishing upland rewilding, why not promote silvo-pasture using traditional, locally-appropriate, lower-productivity rare sheep breeds – a situation that could create ‘wilder’ uplands than at present, and would force the public to reach into their pockets to support it if they wanted? Consider it a rare breed hoop to jump through, a wallet-test for rewilding that would probably generate more accurate feedback than public opinion surveys.

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9. Multi-functionality: in our contemporary cash-crop farm system, sheep basically have the single function of producing meat. But in a self-reliant economy they have what Philip Walling calls a ‘tenfold purpose’ – meat, fat, blood, wool, milk, skin, gut, horn, bone, manure. In the past this provided “food, clothing, housing, heating and light, all manner of domestic implements, soil fertility and parchment”4. Perhaps we should think about some of those possibilities again in creating a more sustainable agro-ecology. Would they make a difference to George’s argument? I don’t know – maybe not much. But it’s worth pondering.

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10. Money: George is probably right that upland sheep farming in its present form is only propped up by a generous EU subsidy regimen (so maybe it’s already a goner, though peasant peoples historically have been pretty good at weathering the storms raised against them from the political centres). Then again, our contemporary food system in its entirety is only propped up by a generous set of explicit and implicit subsidies, and the price the public pays or farmers receive for their food bears next to no relation to its costs. I take George’s point that upland sheep farming may not be the best use for precious public money, but since the whole food system needs rethinking across the board I personally wouldn’t single out upland pastoralism for special opprobrium. In the long-term, I think we need a human ecosystem more closely fitted to its surroundings and I’d imagine that in Britain upland sheep farming in some form would have a role there. In the short-term, I’d say that the fiscal balance sheet of sheep farming is largely irrelevant to the case for or against it.

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11. Flooding vs. rewilding: the flood abatement case against upland sheep-farming seems to me rather different to the rewilding case. In the former, it’s surely possible to develop silvo-pastoral systems which adequately combine the purposes of sheep-keeping and flood abatement5. Whereas in the latter, each sheep is one small extra quantum of human affliction against the kingdom of the wild (full disclosure: I plead a total of six offences currently on this score, as pictured – though I’d argue that they do contribute to the productivity of the holding, which still has it wild spaces…) It’s reasonable to make a both…and case against sheep, but others might want to make an either…or defence which finds an ongoing role for sheep in the uplands.

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So there we have it. I salute George for sticking his head above the parapet as few others are prepared to do and making his case against upland sheep in Britain. But I’m not quite yet ready to throw my lot in with it. First, I’d like to see someone work through the doubts I’ve expressed here and convincingly defuse them.

Notes

  1. George’s main writings on sheep farming, the uplands and related issues are in his book Feral (Allen Lane, 2013) and in articles here, here and here. I’ve written previously on upland sheep farming here, and on rewilding here.
  1. See Thirsk, Joan (1997). Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford, pp.23-4.
  1. Duby, Georges (1974). The Early Growth of the European Economy. Cornell.
  1. Walling, Philip (2015). Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain. Profile, (pp. xix-xx).
  1. As I argue in a little more detail here.

Feeding the rest of Wessex (with a brief digression on World War III)

Let us beat a retreat from the troubling politics of the real world and pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, where all is sweet accord. Though in the light of recent events in the UK and the US, it’s tempting to begin with a little story that just might conceivably link the ghost of Wessex present with the ghost of Wessex future. It goes something like this:

With hindsight, Britain’s exit from the EU turned out to herald its final decline as a major global economic force. Though it had a freer hand to make its own trade deals as an independent country it discovered that (a) outside the privileged bubble of the EU single market and the wider access to global circuits of capital this made available, it didn’t actually have all that much to trade, (b) its most obvious trading partners belonged to large trading blocs with membership benefits it could no longer access, and (c) years of public sector underinvestment and private sector asset stripping left it ill-prepared to compete in the global marketplace. In fact, a similar fate befell other western powers in Europe and North America, albeit for slightly different reasons. But after the brief, transformative Third World War came to an end with the Peace of Beijing brokered through the forceful diplomacy of Russia’s new Tsar, most of the western nations shored up their fragile economies by reinventing themselves essentially as client states to the rising industrial powers of Asia*. Thus, few of them fell quite as far or fast as Britain. Or England to be more precise, in light of the secession of the other UK countries and their integration into the EU. Those secessions created a devolutionary impetus in England that saw the emergence of regional assemblies – initially entirely subservient to Westminster, but with the dwindling willingness and ability of the Westminster government to fund or provide services outside the southeast, the regional assemblies increasingly assumed a de facto local sovereignty. Some of them courted multinational corporations, turning themselves into maquiladora economies that used the income thus generated to contain, barely, the resulting social tensions. For its part, London lost a large proportion of its migrant workers, who sought richer pickings elsewhere – probably just as well, given the increasingly constrained base available for the city to feed itself. It retained something of its lustre as a once-great global city, with a still active, if declining, financial and service sector, giving it a kind of seedy grandiloquence reminiscent of, say, Istanbul, only colder and wetter. In the southwest, the conditions for either the industrial self-abasement of the maquiladora regions or the stately decline of the southeast were lacking – it had little going for it except its rich farmland and the pleasant landscapes visited by an ever-declining number of tourists. But its regional government, building on the example of early-millennium independent Frome, pursued a course of regional agricultural and industrial self-reliance. Not by any means an easy course, and one requiring an enormous mobilisation of its people that necessarily rested on a substantial egalitarianism in access to wealth and resources. But though a few old men would still get drunk in its bars and sing patriotic songs about the greatness of the country’s illustrious history, much as a few old men now still do in, say, Mongolia, few people had time for such conceits and felt more engaged in the intricate business of forging a livelihood in the challenging times of the present. In the context of the post-United Nations fraying of the Westphalian nation-state – what scholars had been calling ‘the new medievalism’ of overlapping sovereignties and autarkic regionalism from as early as the late 20th century – the Wessexers found that if they kept their heads down, avoided meddling in larger national and international power politics, paid a largely symbolic obeisance to London, and complained bitterly to any foreigner they met (especially Londoners) about how desperately poor they were, they were pretty much left alone to get on with the challenging but not unrewarding business of making a living from the land. When, in the late 21st century, the world was hit with the long-anticipated triple crisis of accelerating climate change, spiralling energy prices and capitalist economic stagnation, Wessex was better placed than most parts of the world (including the other UK regions) to try to ride out the storm.

* We’ll dwell more in another post on the North American side of this story. But in brief, as everyone knows, the USA ignored the warnings about the limits of its military power signalled by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and – under pressure from a bellicose Congress – President Kardashian launched a war in three separate theatres that soon backfired spectacularly. By way of reparations, at the Peace of Beijing China imposed on the US the migration of millions of Chinese peasant farmers, political troublemakers and other ne’er-do-wells, referred to collectively as ‘non-capitalist roaders’, each to be allocated up to 160 acres of US farmland as determined by the Homestead (Legal Immigrants) Act, 2062. The Chinese incomers were received with rank hostility by the local population at first, but their love of American political freedoms, their endearing taste for Hollywood movies and American fashions, and their superb farming skills soon helped to thaw relations once Americans had resigned themselves to their diminished place in world affairs. Thus, some 250 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a wholesome US smallholder republic was finally realised, albeit with a greater emphasis on fermented soy products than he’d imagined – an industry with its epicentre in Ohio.

That, clearly, is what is going to happen. But the question is will this future Wessex be able to feed itself? When we were last there we learned that the enlightened rulers of the satellite republic had determined that 40% of its lowland agricultural holdings should be given over to peasant self-provision for a 20% portion of the population who were thus able to feed themselves comfortably using low impact organic methods. That leaves the remaining 60% of the farmland available to feed the other 80% of the population, numbering some 4.9 million souls in 2039. Let’s see how this 80% might fare.

Presently, 68% of lowland farmland in Wessex is permanent pasture, while 31% is arable land – leaving the princely total of 1% for horticulture. At those proportions, I’m worried that my wan Wessex urbanites might suffer from a touch of scurvy, so I’m going to adjust the grass/arable/horticulture proportions to 61/32/6%. In other words, a bit of the permanent pasture becomes cropland. Not all permanent pasture is suitable for cropping, but my guess is that enough of it would be for this adjustment to be feasible.

On the arable lands of the PROW about 3% is devoted to hemp and flax for keeping the urbanites in the latest fashions. On the rest of it, I propose to establish a fairly standard mixed organic rotation comprising 50% grass/clover ley, the remaining 50% being split evenly between winter wheat, winter oats, potatoes, field beans and spring wheat. The grass/clover ley is used for grazing dairy cows.

The horticulture land is split 75/25 between vegetables and fruit/nuts. The vegetables are grown organically, with 30% down to a ley (also used for livestock) and the rest growing a mixture of vegetables in rotation.

In terms of livestock, I’d propose to keep dairy cows on the arable leys and the permanent pasture. Some of them would be fed oats (1,100kg/cow/year) and beans (550kg), yielding an assumed 6,200 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow/ha (I’ve lifted these figures from the Organic Farm Management Handbook). With about 116,000 tonnes of oats produced on about 33,000ha at 3.5 t/ha, and about 83,000 tonnes of beans produced on the same area at 2.5 t/ha, that’ll give us enough feed for about 106,000 cows, with about 25,000 tonnes of beans left over to feed some pigs and laying hens. But, after subtracting the 106,000ha of intensive-organic dairying, there’s still just under 700,000ha of permanent pasture, so let’s raise more dairy cows extensively in the same manner as the neo-peasants, getting 3,300 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow plus calf per 1.2ha. We’ll get some beef from the dairy calves at the same rates as the neo-peasants too.

We’ll also keep pigs and laying hens, mostly on the peri-urban market garden/truck farm sites. We’ll split the remaining beans between the pigs and hens 50/50, and also feed them food waste (we’ll assume that 3% of Wessex’s food production is discarded as waste, which is available for the pigs and hens). That should give us about 12,000 tonnes of pig meat and 227 million eggs.

We’ve also got about 83,000ha of rough grazing where we’ll keep sheep, producing around 80kg of sheep meat per hectare per year, if that doesn’t sound too much? And we’ll have the same amount of sea fish as for the neo-peasants – about 20kg per person per year.

And there you have it – the full nutritional spread for our Wessex non-peasants. Let’s take a look at whether it meets the nutritional needs of the population. This is shown in Table 1, which parallels the corresponding table in my analysis for the neo-peasants.

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity for Wessex’s Non-Neo-Peasant Population

 

x1011

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 181 1.93 32.4 3.53 11.5 0.22
Required 168 0.89 14.3 1.43 7.14 0.21
Ratio 1.07 2.16 2.27 2.47 1.61 1.05

Holy cow, we’ve pulled it off again! Maybe it’s a bit tight on the energy, so there’d be a case for trimming back the permanent pasture for cropland a little more – or else suggesting those city slickers get their hands dirty on an allotment and grow a few of their own potatoes. But let’s just take another moment to admire our handiwork. With only a minor bit of jiggery-pokery around permanent pasture and cropland, we’ve met the entire nutritional needs of a future Wessex population comprising an extra million people over the present using entirely organic farming methods at modest yield assumptions and without expanding beyond the existing agricultural land take. Cue another round of applause.

I’ve got to admit that the non-peasants have a starchier diet than the peasants, as is shown in the pie chart below – a pie which, for my taste, goes a bit overboard on the pastry and skimps a little on the filling. This diet fails proposition Paul, with 17% of its calories coming from protein but only 33% from fat and the rest from carbohydrates, mostly of the simple rather than the complex variety. I still think it’s not such a bad diet compared with many, but the greater reliance on starchy staples surely sounds a warning note in terms of the capacities of the land. Parson Malthus isn’t quite yet out of his box, but it’s as well to be aware that his coffin lid is rattling. The last Malthusian crisis in the southwest was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – pretty much around the time when the much-derided Reverend (who died here in Somerset) was writing, curiously enough. The problem was solved on that occasion by mass migration to Australia and the USA – two great migrant nations that command the respect of the world for welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to this very day…or so I’ve heard.

Figure 1: Calorific contribution to the Wessex non-peasant diet by food group

wessex-non-peasant-energy-pie-chart

But there’s an elephant in the room. And this time it’s not capitalism. Well, maybe it is in view of the difficulties Wessex will have in earning foreign exchange. But the real elephant is energy. If 80% of Wessex’s population are going to be fed from 60% of its farmland without working as producers themselves, then farming on this 60% is going to have to be heavily mechanised. At the moment, this is achieved through copious use of fossil fuels. But that may not be possible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex circa 2039 or thereafter. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by…Gosh, the low battery alarm on my PV system has started to sound! Well, that’s quite enough for one blog post anyway. I’ll tell you the answer to the energy conundrum when the sun comes out again and my electricity supply isn’t likely to cut out at any mome

Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

In my last post I began setting out a vision for a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England (or the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as I’m calling it). My starting assumption is to keep agricultural land use roughly the same as it presently is, which relative to the rest of the country means there’s more permanent pasture for ruminant grazing and less cropland for arable and horticultural production. That prompts me to briefly hit the ‘Pause’ button on the neo-peasant vision, and to think – ruminate, even – a little more about livestock.

A loose confederation of animal welfare activists, human health activists and environmentalists have popularised the view that globally we need to produce less meat and livestock, and it’s not a view I’ll quarrel with for the most part. If you look at the world from a global land use perspective, the way humanity produces meat is scandalously cruel, polluting, bad for our health and inefficient. On the other hand, if you look at a given small agricultural land parcel from a local self-provisioning perspective, as my Wessex neo-peasants will be doing, then including livestock is a no-brainer from an efficiency point of view, and possibly from a health and pollution point of view too. Simon Fairlie has set out all the issues in great detail and with no little aplomb in his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, so I won’t dwell on them here. Essentially, everything turns on adopting what Simon calls ‘default’ livestock strategies – that is, using livestock to complement rather than compete with the production of food for direct human use on the farm.

In the case of animals like pigs and chickens, the default strategy is fairly obvious and makes perfect sense unless you’re a DEFRA bureaucrat – get them to eat waste human food and thus get a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. In the case of ruminants like cows and sheep, the issue is more complex. Ruminants eat grass, which humans can’t eat directly, and in that sense are default animals par excellence (so long as they’re not sneakily boosted with grains and legumes). But you don’t get a whole lot of meat (or milk) per hectare of grass. In some situations – upland grazing, for example – you might be inclined to accept whatever meagre gifts the grazing offers (but then again, you might not – see below) because although you don’t get much meat per hectare you’ll get a lot more of it, for less work, than any other food you might try to produce there. Actually, that point also holds true for lowland organic farming. If you’re not fertilising your crops with exotically-produced synthetics, you’ll probably need to build a generous amount of temporary grass-clover ley into your crop rotation, which won’t produce any food for you in itself. So getting some ruminants in to graze your ley commends itself as a default livestock strategy, which adds to your productivity. Nevertheless, you might come to the view that there is too much grass and too many ruminants in your farming system overall, and seek to adjust those parameters downwards.

But why would you come to that view? I can think of seven possible reasons, and here I’m going to whizz through them briefly by way of an introduction to my neo-peasant theme.

1- Animal rights: you might take the view that it’s wrong to domesticate animals, keep them in captivity and then kill them in accordance with your own personal agenda. It’s a view that I grudgingly respect, but don’t share. It’s also a view that has had virtually no plausibility in any historic peasant society anywhere (India included, albeit in interesting ways), which perhaps is worth bearing in mind. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an essentially ethical stance which is independent of my present theme of farm system productivity. Therefore I’m merely going to acknowledge it as a consideration and move on.

2- Human health: you might take the view that animal products are bad for human health, saturated animal fat having been a particular whipping boy in this respect in recent years. I’m going to come back to this issue in another post, so I’ll leave it hanging for now. It’s worth mentioning though that in northerly climes such as Britain there have been no local sources of dietary oil or fat other than animal ones until the very recent advent of oilseed rape (canola) as an arable break crop.

3- Carbon emissions: ruminants, notoriously, are significant emitters of methane as a result of the extraordinary fermentation vats contained in their digestive tracts, and have therefore been regarded as climate change culprits. But then again, unlike tilled cropland, permanent pasture can be a net carbon absorber. But then again, well established permanent pasture is typically in carbon equilibrium, or worse – finding uses for it other than the slim returns from ruminants would probably be more climate-friendly. But then again, including a few ruminants in a default peasant livestock silvo-pasture system could well be one of those more climate-friendly uses. And so the debate rages on. My personal summary of the issues would be this: the science of soils, woodlands, grasslands, ruminants and carbon is bafflingly complex, but what seems clear is (1) It’s a bad idea to clear established wild forest or grassland in order to grow fodder for animals (probably human animals included), and (2) Climate change is a huge global problem because we have an unprecedentedly high-energy global economy based overwhelmingly on the combustion of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, not because small-scale farmers keep ruminants on existing grassland. Next.

4, 5, & 6- the Monbiot critique: They’re coming thick and fast now. 4 is biodiversity. 5 is ecosystem services. 6 is land use preferences. I’m lumping them together because these all feature in George Monbiot’s influential critique of what he memorably calls the ‘sheepwrecked’ British uplands. In a nutshell, Monbiot’s argument is that excessive grazing of sheep in the British uplands has created a treeless and ecologically impoverished wasteland of poor soils, rough grasses and heather which is dreary to look at, provides slim pickings for wildlife, and contributes to flooding downstream by quickly releasing surface water runoff rather than holding it up, as a diversely treed natural landscape would. Compounding these considerable disadvantages, in Monbiot’s view, is the fact that upland sheep farming is so unproductive, being largely propped up by farm subsidies. In his words, “Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity”1.

I’m sympathetic to the Monbiot critique, but not yet 100% persuaded by it. Taking his quotation, I’d  begin by observing that agriculture in its entirety is so befuddled by economic perversities that few sound inferences are possible when comparing the money values of any given agricultural commodities. But what that import-export disparity most strongly suggests to me is that the people of Wales like to eat more meat than their local landscape can sustainably provide – which is fairly typical of people in wealthy countries, and is not a failing of the upland sheep industry per se. If the people of Wales, like the people in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, had to furnish their requirements for meat (or, more to the point, for fat) from their own local resources, then we can be pretty sure that there’d be a lot of sheep in the uplands. Or, to put it another way, the apparent ‘unproductiveness’ of upland sheep farming may be an artefact of how you go about comparing farm systems.

We can push that last point in several directions. For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that much upland sheep farming isn’t geared primarily to producing meat but to producing purebred bloodstock, which are integrated with meatier lowland breeds in a variety of ways that increase the efficiency and resilience of sheep farming in Britain as a whole. In that sense, it’s misleading to look at upland sheep farming in isolation. A more holistic view reveals an efficient default livestock system – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’2 – operating nationwide that optimises the agricultural potential of the country’s different landscapes.

Or perhaps we might ponder at more length the putative ‘failure of productivity’ that Monbiot detects in the Welsh meat trade imbalance. In Britain (and presumably in Wales too) we eat around ten times more chicken and pork meat than sheep meat. Chickens and pigs are fed mostly on crops from arable farms that could otherwise be serving human needs. We also eat around three times more cattle meat than sheep meat, and there’s more arable-based concentrate in cattle diets than in ovine ones. So in default livestock terms, upland sheep meat is arguably more, not less, productive than these non-default counterparts.

To press the point further, I’m inclined to question whether the ‘productivity’ of land is relevant to the issue of its agricultural ‘wrecking’. There’s no doubting the far greater agricultural productivity of the North American grasslands (or for that matter the East Anglian flatlands) than the Welsh uplands, but could we not say that these places are ‘wheatwrecked’ or ‘cornwrecked’ in the same way that the British uplands are ‘sheepwrecked’? And surely a case could be made that New Zealand is also sheepwrecked, even if it produces lamb at lower carbon and dollar prices, given that it had no resident mammals of any kind prior to European colonization? In his book Feral, Monbiot describes his disappointment in moving from the overpopulated English lowlands to the wild Welsh uplands, only to find his new home much less wild than he’d anticipated – a landscape, in fact, moulded by human agriculture for almost as long as the lowlands. Much of Monbiot’s critique of the contemporary agricultural practices and policies compounding the problem is (quite literally) on the money, but I think the intuitive appeal of his rewilded upland anti-pastoral draws in good measure from a set of somewhat naïve homologies: mountain:lowland – wild:tame – beauty:ugliness – good:bad. As James Rebanks points out in his book The Shepherd’s Life, visitors to the mountains are often oblivious to the human landscape generations of its inhabitants have made – or if not oblivious, then perhaps actively hostile to its putative poverty, destructiveness and inefficiency. This is the same argument that’s always used to clear peasants off the land. There are many forms of enclosure, and some of them point towards the abolition of agriculture to benefit the wilderness rather than the ‘improvement’ of agriculture to benefit society. What’s usually lost along the way is local appreciation of agricultural carrying capacity. In the globalised modern world, preserving our local wildernesses usually equates to wrecking a wilderness somewhere else that’s lower in the global pecking order.

I can see the force in the argument that it’s better to wheatwreck the prairies than to sheepwreck the Welsh uplands because at least the prairies are feeding a lot of people. Thus speaks the voice of the rational-bureaucratic planner, of whom I wrote in my recent review of George’s new book. But I still prefer the voice of the autochton: if there’s wrecking to be done, it’s best to wreck your own habitat for your own food, because otherwise there’s little chance of bringing the wreckage under long-term control. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems probable that the semi-arid continental grasslands – a basket into which humanity has been cramming an increasing proportion of its collective eggs in recent decades – may well become agriculturally wrecked soon enough. Wiser, I think, to look first at one’s own local agricultural resources.

Still, what’s surely better than wrecking is trading off the various potentialities of the uplands – for meat (and the other nine useful products derived from sheep), for wildness, for biodiversity and for watershed management. I don’t see that this is a case for either sheep or watershed management, either sheep or biodiversity. But I’d appreciate input from anyone reading this who has more expertise than me in these matters3. One study I’ve read suggests that planting small strips of trees on upland slopes can reduce flood peaks by 40%, an approach that’s surely compatible with upland sheep husbandry in a silvo-pastoral system4. I’d like to see the Monbiot critique develop in this direction: assuming a national or sub-national food economy that’s largely self-sufficient, and will probably therefore have to take advantage of upland sheep and upland grass, but assuming too the need for sensible, whole-systems thinking about wildlife and watershed management, what kind of mixed land use policies best commend themselves in the uplands?

That’s a lot of assuming, of course. Current government policy does not assume national food self-sufficiency or holistic wildlife and water management. Instead, it crowds shoddy (to coin a pastoral term) new-build houses onto lowland floodplains and supports a dysfunctional agricultural subsidy regimen whose major beneficiaries are not upland sheep farmers but mostly consumers and retailers, secondarily large-scale landowners, with active farmers coming well down the list. Writers like Rebanks show how upland sheep farming communities in Britain come about as close as we currently have to a peasantry. And if there’s a battle for political influence over upland land use between the upstream peasantry for grazing rights and the downstream urbanites for flood abatement and rambling rights, it’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win. But in the long term I think we’ll need to devote some effort to protecting our uplands for farming and protecting our lowlands from farming. The Monbiot critique is a good starting point for more holistic land use policy, but it’s only a starting point, and it’s a bit too black and white.

7- Meat for Mr Malthus: well-raised meat is a concentrated source of good nutrients, and many people like to eat it in preference to most other things. But it’s a land-hungry way of producing human nutrition. So if a society discovers that it’s struggling to produce the meat it wants from the land it has available, this can act as a useful early warning that resource limits are looming. There are all sorts of ways of responding to the signal, some better and some easier than others – limiting meat access just to the wealthy, trimming back human population, applying more human labour to more intensive forms of livestock husbandry, hoping for technical innovations that will produce more meat on less land, increasing the proportion of cropland relative to pasture or rangeland, increasing the total amount of farmed land (perhaps through colonial land-takes) and so on. I think a sensible approach is to treat it as a warning shot across the bows and downsize. People often make the point that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, as if this is some fact of nature. The likelihood is, despite its unprecedentedly large present population, Britain could easily be self-sufficient in food if that was something that we collectively wished to prioritise. We are nowhere near any kind of Malthusian crisis (though climate change could force a rapid reassessment…and of course our present enormous agricultural footprint has imposed a Malthusian crisis on other species).

Still, I doubt we could easily be self-sufficient in food at current levels of meat consumption. So perhaps the time has come for us to trim back, proportionately or absolutely, our permanent pasture (and the ghost pasturages we use in other countries) and tie it more specifically into mixed organic farming systems which primarily grow crops for direct human needs. In a relatively closed agricultural system, there are always going to have to be short run adjustments between cropland and pasture, and it’s no disaster for us here in Wessex (and the other wealthy countries of the world) to eat a bit less meat. This does raise interesting questions about localism, agricultural specialisation and land use efficiency: the wet and grassy west of Britain was exchanging meat for grain long before the absurdly amplified trade imbalances of the present global agrarian system. I’d argue that a neo-peasant agriculture probably has to trade off a degree of land use efficiency for local self-reliance, though it’s worth pondering that equation in detail – how local? how efficient? how self-reliant? Too much emphasis on land use efficiency at supra local levels leads to sheepwrecked mountains and wheatwrecked plains.

At least here in the claylands of Wiltshire and Somerset there are traditions of more localised pastoral farming to draw on, as described by the disapproving John Aubrey in the seventeenth century,

Hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milk the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious4

Sounds good to me. Arable farming indeed is the agriculture of hard labour – of landowning elites and overworked, politically powerless, malnourished workers. Most likely, modernity and globalisation have only bought a temporary reprieve from that historic truth. Give me Abel over Cain, milk meates and coole braines over inventive tillers.

So ultimately I think I’d opt for the omnivore’s argument over the vegetarian’s: the problem isn’t that there are too many ruminants; it’s that there are too many people. Probably the best (the most humane) long-term way of solving this problem is to allocate agricultural land fairly among the existing population, and let individuals figure out for themselves how best to balance their taste for meat with their desire for enough food on the table, and their desires and needs to reproduce. Such, at any rate, might be the policy framework adopted by the enlightened rulers of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.

~~~

All that has taken us a long way from my point of departure, which was asking how much permanent pasture it’s appropriate to have on a lowland neo-peasant farm, and how much mountain grazing it’s appropriate to have in the uplands. And the answer I’ve come to is this: as much as possible, subject to the needs for sufficient calories to feed the population, for holistic landscape management, and for space for wildlife and biodiversity. How marvellous that someone’s finally come along and cleared that issue up once and for all, huh?

Notes

 

  1. Monbiot, G. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess, Verso, p.121.
  1. See eg. Walling, P. 2014. Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain, Profile.
  1. One issue that I’d like clarification on is the relative balance between sheepwrecking and natural biogeography to explain the treeless uplands. I notice on my forays to Snowdonia how at higher elevations the few straggling rowans hunker in sheltered streambeds, while stands of ash, hawthorn and other species grow more abundantly lower down, despite the presence of sheep throughout.
  1. Jackson, B. et al. 2008. The impact of upland land management on flooding: insights from a multiscale experimental and modelling programme. Flood Risk Management, 1: 71-80.
  1. Quoted in J.H. Bettey, 1977. Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, Moonraker Press, p.16.

Slaughterhouse Zero

Following on from my post about our compost toilet (the full photo experience is now available at Resilience.org, by the way), I thought I’d stick with the visceral theme and devote a few words to the closure of my local abattoir in the centre of my town, only about a mile from my holding. Apparently it failed to meet modern hygiene standards.

I imagine this will be one of the less mourned business closures among the good people of Frome. Tales abounded of the rivers of blood running down Vicarage Street at dead of night, or the unearthly screams of doomed animals reverberating off the walls of St Johns church. Urban myths, methinks. Plenty of people are happy to eat meat, but fewer like to be reminded about what eating meat involves. I welcomed the fact that the abattoir was in the town centre, so that people going about their daily business could at least see the trucks and trailers of live animals heading to their final destination and have some kind of connection to the business of life and death that is farming. Even so, most local residents I’ve talked to didn’t know there was an abattoir in town.

I for one will mourn its loss. I can’t say I ever particularly enjoyed taking my animals there – not least because of the increasingly overbearing legislation and form-filling that has accumulated around the raising and slaughtering of livestock in recent years, mostly as a result of food scares associated with large-scale farming that nevertheless bite hardest on small-scale farmers. But it was good to have a small local abattoir that was happy to process just a few animals, and which was close enough by to keep the stress of moving them to a minimum. In the 1980s there were more than a thousand abattoirs in Britain, a number that has now dwindled to less than 300. Leaving aside issues about the role of livestock in sustainable farming (I’ll be considering this in more detail soon) I’m not at all convinced that these closures are a good thing for either animal or human welfare. Our culture seems endlessly concerned with micro-managing small risks of the kind that lie behind small abattoir closures, while blithely ignoring much larger risks – climate change, to name but one.

If we’re to have the kind of small farm future that I think we need to create a just and sustainable society then we’ll also need a local agricultural infrastructure to support it. The closure of Frome’s abattoir is one more little step in the wrong direction. Time was when the point of a small market town like Frome was mostly to provide those kind of services to the people living and working in its rural surroundings. It wasn’t so long ago that there was still a cattle market in the town centre. Year by year, the contact of the general public with farming is eroded.

A walk around Frome reveals a plethora of lovely old buildings with all manner of hatchways, trapdoors, gantries, workshops, stables and so forth that show how work, including agricultural work, was once part of daily residential life in the town. Today they’re almost purely residential. Many of these buildings now have listed status and are part of the town’s conservation area. Strange how we’re so concerned to preserve the form of old buildings but so happy to dispose of their function. Those who speak up for a more localised mixed agriculture are widely dismissed as backward-looking romantics, whereas those who maintain the pretence of it by preserving old buildings are hailed as forward-thinking conservationists standing up to the vandalism of development.

To me, the more telling vandalism is in the gutting of local economies, symbolised by the huge industrial abattoirs, markets, feedlots and all the other paraphernalia of modern large-scale farming, which removes agriculture from public view. In the past, towns and cities usually grew up around working functions, as commercial or industrial centres. But now these functions have become so large and concentrated that often they can no longer fit even within the distended boundaries of our modern cities. The port at Shanghai, the largest in the world, at 3,600km2 is more than twice the size of Greater London. And most of Britain’s old port cities, including London, are no longer working ports – a function that has been outsourced to non-urban places like Felixstowe with greater legroom. All this raises the question of what modern towns and cities are actually for…but that’s something I aim to look at in another post.