Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Agriculture and its discontents

Good on Mark Bittman for giving attention to the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, and Wes Jackson. Too bad this isn't considered part of the "solution" enough to have Silicon Valley sugar daddies pouring in millions to develop it like genetically modified seeds:
“The plow has destroyed more options for future generations than the sword,” [Jackson] says. “But soil is more important than oil, and just as nonrenewable.” Soil loss is one of the biggest hidden costs of industrial agriculture — and it’s created at literally a glacial pace, maybe a quarter-inch per century. The increasingly popular no-till style of agriculture reduces soil loss but increases the need for herbicides. It’s a short-term solution, requiring that we poison the soil to save it.

Annual monoculture like that practiced in the Midwestern Corn Belt is one culprit. It produces the vast majority of our food, and much of that food — perhaps 70 percent of our calories — is from grasses, which produce edible seeds, or cereals. For 10,000 years we’ve plowed the soil, planted in spring and harvested in fall, one crop at a time.

In an essay he published 26 years ago, called “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond theorized that this was essentially our downfall: by losing our hunter-gatherer roots and becoming dependent on agriculture, we made it possible for the human population to expand but paid the price in the often malnourishing, environmentally damaging system we have today.

That’s fascinating, and irreversible; barring a catastrophe that drastically reduces the human population, we’ll rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But if we look to the kind of systems Jackson talks about, we can markedly reduce the damage. “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble,” he says of industrial agriculture. “We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.”

Perennial polysystems are one way forward, because they allow us to produce grains, legumes, oils and other foods with a host of benefits. Gesturing across the road from where we sat, Jackson said to me: “That prairie — a prime example of a self-sustaining system — doesn’t have soil erosion, it’s not fossil-fuel dependent, you have species and chemical diversity. If you look around you’ll see that essentially all of nature’s ecosystems are perennial polycultures; that’s nature’s instruction book.” In perennial polycultures, the plants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood, and survive even when one member suffers.

In addition to domesticating wild food-producing species, the Land Institute staff has taken on a far more challenging task: converting annuals into perennials. Perenniality is a complex trait, controlled by multiple genes. Perennials put more energy into their roots and less into flowers and seeds and greens, they send reserve energy into storage to wake up in the spring and they seldom die. The work might go faster if Jackson had adequate funding, which isn’t much; he’d consider himself fully funded for the next 30 years with about one-third of the 2011 Federal subsidy for producing ethanol.
Now This Is Natural Food (New York Times)


  1. Jackson isn't well funded because his results proceed at a glacial pace. Many people don't think it can be done. But then, maize proceeded at a glacial pace from teosinte... I think he can do it, but it might take longer than he thinks.

    Gadz. I am sad to see he is repeating the untruth that soil creation proceeds at a glacial pace. People using the Keyline method have shown soil build up 10 cm over three years. Joel Salatin's dad got a farm so poor in soil he had to sink fence posts into tires with cement in them. Now? Deep deep soil. How? Just like the prairie... with ruminants.

    Geologic soil creation -- takes eons
    Biological soil creation -- takes years

    Btw, Jared Diamond was wrong -- it wasn't agriculture that brought ruin -- it was inequality that led to desperation and poor land stewardship. IMO, of course...

    And plowing isn't necessarily the bad guy... it all depends what kind of plow in what kind of soil and whether the soil remains covered.

  2. Ah, but the thinking is that agriculture is what led to inequality by creating storable surpluses that could be "owned" and controlled by elites instead of common resources provided by nature that were open to all. This is not exclusive to agriculture though; this same stratification has been documented among fish-forager societies who live in permanent villages and can preserve fish (like salmon in the Pacific Northwest). I think I posted about this, search the archives for 'salmon' or 'Keatley creek.' Mathematical simulations have tended to show that once this happens, inequality is bound to rise until something stops it (usually societal/environmental collapse). Still, societies that had unequal ownership of land did screw up agriculture far more than places with yeomanry. The killer of Roman agricuture was the latifundia which were owned by a small slice of wealthy absentee landlords and worked by slaves. What incentive is there to take care of land then?

    It seems like this might be a legitimate use for genetic engineering besides quick fixes like making vitamin-A rice, or weed-killer-resistant plants (which only leads to hardier weeds). But I might be wrong about that. Ran Prieur remarked that the problem with genetic engineering is that it's mainly being used to preserve and extend the existing paradigm of fossil fuel based low-labor monocultures based around a few easily processed and transportable crops and treated with chemicals, rather than alternatives.

    Regarding soil, Allen Savory's (sp?) work is also a great example of this. I believe I already posted his TED talk.

    1. I know Keatley Creek and associated thinking. Since you do too, let's poke this pig a bit. What led to stored surpluses is rich foraging, already (rarely) in the Paleolithic, and more so in the Mesolithic. Since this is a fact, then how can ag be blamed for the pattern? Ag just extended it and made it even more common.

      So let's back up a bit and say, what led to stored surpluses getting OWNED? What led to the rich fishing hole to be owned by a family? There is plenty of evidence of surpluses being left in a hole or other simple hut among some tribes, and used in times of need, by anyone. Whence ownership of surplus? That's my current puzzle. How do you go from a tribe where anyone hoarding a fishing hole would be ridiculed or ostracized, to a tribe where they just shrug it off and put up?

      Yeah, Alan Savory is doing a yeoman's amount of good work in the world.

    2. Too bad you don't care much for engaging.

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