Permaculture and GMOs

UK’s leading Permaculture author Patrick Whitefield posted an interesting tweet the other day:

to which I replied:

It seems a strange argument- how does one define “need” in this case? A new technology that can save large losses from disease seems something certainly desirable- and ultimately we may well need it to make farming more efficient. Even if we do not currently “need” GE spuds, the technology has many other applications and developing countries where food security is not so, well, secure, really do need such improvements for their farmers.

One specific but quite different application of the technology is of course Vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice. With hundreds of thousands of vitamin-A deficient children becoming blind each year, and half of them dying within a year, this rice would indisputably be meeting a very urgent need which other methods are clearly not meeting. To claim otherwise is “just noise.”

Genetic engineering does have significant advantages over traditional breeding methods- new blight resistant varieties can be turned around in just one growing season as opposed to 10-15 years, keeping ahead of the blight’s own evolution. Either way, we are on a tread-mill, always striving to keep at least one step ahead of Nature who would starve us as soon as look at us. Moreover, a wider choice of tools surely leads to more resilience- just as the permaculture principle of “multiple sources” would advise.

You may as well say we don’t “need” computers since the postal service does an admiral job, or we don’t need buses and trains since the humble horse can carry us to Tipperary just as well. On the face of it is just seems like an excuse to undermine a technology which is somewhat arbitrarily the subject of a vitriolic environmentalist campaign. The clue comes in the last paragraph of the linked article:

Ultimately, the array of techniques currently in practice among commercial growers to prevent potato blight makes the need for a GM solution appear redundant and potentially reckless, especially when considering the broader implications of resistance, pesticide-use, and corporate ownership of our food systems.

Ah yes, playing the “corporate ownership of the food system” card- which rather conveniently serves to cover up the absence of any actual argument against GMOs in the article, even if some growers do find Sarpos preferable.

I challenged Patrick that his opposition was ideological, and he didn’t really have any argument. He disputed this- “For me this is not a matter of ideology but of practicality, of weighing pros and cons.”- and went on to make a point:

Again, this seems an odd argument- as if a solution cannot be used if it works really well, because if it works too well it won’t work very well. If you get my drift… In my view, this is just a concealed concession to fears of Pandora’s Box: we should not trust technology. We are too clever for our own good. No good in fact will come of this, since we just shouldn’t be meddlin’ in what we don’t really understand. That is what I mean by ideology- the misanthropy that underpins much environmentalism, including permaculture, that basically would shake its head in dismay at the Knowing Ape and say: People just ain’t no good.

In the real world there are actual farmers who know about these things, and have well known techniques to help slow the evolution of pest resistance, for example by planting corn refuges. As with so many issues raised in objection to GMOs, this is a farm management issue, not a plant breeding issue.

In fact, although resistance is an inevitable result of any kind of pest control method- that ol’ treadmill again- the reality is far more interesting. It turns out that the unintended consequences of for example of Bt corn in the US are of the beneficial kind- is so successful that it can actually provide a refuge for non-transgenic varieties. The halo effect is best known in the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, credited with saving the Organic Papaya industry which was being devastated by ringspot virus- again, traditional methods had proved unable to solve the problem, so there an indisputable (but not undisputed) need:

In the case of the Hawaiian papaya, scientists planted an “island” of nontransgenic variety in an “ocean” of transgenic papaya as a means of securing the nontransgenic variety. The specially modified traits of GM crops helped to kill off pests, control water intake and provide a sort of refuge for non-modified crops in nearby acres.

Patrick responded to this:

Open-mindedness is a very welcome quality in this highly politicized and ideological issue. For Patrick Whitefield to even claim this is big bananas in permaculture world, since he is one of the top writers for the UK Permaculture Magazine, which has taken an overtly activist position against GMOs, and regularly fetes Indian ideologue Vandana Shiva .

(For an must-read in-depth look at what Vandana Shiva really stands for see this article by Marco Rosaire Conrad-Rossi.)

Most bizarrly though, Patrick ended the exchange by saying that it was me who is closed-minded!

I suggested to Patrick that he write an article on GMOs for the magazine, arguing for an open-minded approach. This I think would be rather a stretch- but one can live in hope.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa does

Another book review from the archives of my previous blog Zone5.
Paalberg’s book is as relevant as ever- although there has been some movement on GE crops since I wrote the review, by and large they are still slow to take off in most of the continent. The only thing I would change is in the post’s title- we in the developed world also need GE to help improve  the efficiency and environmental resilience of farming practices.
Starved for Science stands as a damning indictment of the environmental movement’s ideological campaign against genetic engineering, which has made the task of solving hunger and poverty in rural Africa much more difficult by keeping it from those who need it the most.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa Does

First posted on 10 September 2010 on Zone5.org

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Starved for science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

Robert Paalberg
Harvard University Press 2009 Pbck 235pp

Harvard Professor Robert Paalberg has written a book that makes essential reading for anyone interested in global food politics and why Africa still fails to feed many of its people.
Africa remains the only region on earth with increasing poverty and hunger. The number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day increased 50% since the early 90s; Between 1991 and 2002 the number of malnourished people in Africa increased from 169 to 206 million, with nearly a third of sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, compared with just 17% in the developing world as a whole.

Paalberg accounts for this as a result of policies that since the 1970s have resulted in a massive decline in investment in agricultural science in Africa. While in Asia and South America, farmers benefited from the new science of the green Revolution, and have been able to both feed their growing population- confounding the predictions of neo-Malthusians- and bring many out of poverty as well. India started planting new Green Revolution short-straw varieties in 1964; by 1970 production had doubled, averting fears of famine.

Why did Africa get left behind? Paalberg argues that while in Asia and South America had strong enough institutions and science to continue with their own scientific developments with little further outside assistance, Africa was became influenced by a change in the political and cultural climate in Europe from the 1980s onwards. In particular, this has seriously slowed the uptake of Genetic Engineering in Africa, which Paalberg argues is a result in part of the ideological position of many NGOs working in Africa.

In order to examine what lies behind this ideological position, Paalberg gives a detailed account of the rise of the Organic movement in the west, and a strong consumer movement demanding more natural food:
“This reification of what is “natural” is in part a cultural reaction to the hegemonic expansion of modern science. Advances in modern science tend to diminish both unspoiled nature and unquestioned faith, prompting those with a strong romantic or spiritual side to register their objections by seeking foods that incorporate less modern science. “
This view had already emerged in the US as early as 1892 when a clergyman called Sylvester Graham invented the “Graham Cracker” as a reaction against additives used to whiten bread. Paalberg points out Graham was a “patriarch and a prude; he thought women should go back to milling their own flour and believed in vegetarianism as a means to control sexual passions.”

In Europe, Rudolph Steiner founded the vitalist school of philosophy called Anthroposophy.
“‘Vitalism’” explains Paalberg “was the once-dominant view that living things had a chemical composition different from non-living things”- a view known to be untrue by science since 1780, yet one that still underpins much of the organic movement even today. Steiner’s “Biodynamic” techniques- a mixture of sympathetic magic, astrology and animal sacrifice- seem to have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Sir Albert Howard’s 1940 publication “An Agricultural Testament” was also influential in this reaction against science in farming: “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Lady Eve Balfour was next in 1943 with her book “The Living Soil” which inspired the formation of the Soil Association in 1946, “still the institutional guardian of organic farming traditions in Great Britain.” The SA’s leading patron is HRH Prince Charles, “the most prominent exemplar of this blue-blood attachment in England to pre-industrial, chemical-free farming”.
In the US, J.I Rodale coined the term “Organic farming” and founded the “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1942. Rodale was also a big fan of alternative health care and supplements.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” perhaps did more than any other book to warn of the dangers of chemical pollution from farming. The environmental movement had come of age and began to have a real influence over public policy.

The movement grew rapidly with the rise of an alternative youth culture in the 1960s and 70s, getting a major boost in the US in 1990 with the creation of a single national standard for organic produce.
However, even today in the US the organic sector makes up only 2% of total food purchases and using only 0.4% of cropland. The claims of the organic movement of safer, more nutritious food, and of being more beneficial to nature, are not in general supported by scientific evidence. Paalberg argues that the per capita amount of land need to feed people has declined by more than 50% in the US since 1920; a switch now to organics would require far more land, threatening much of the remaining forest and wild areas.

Carsonain environmentalists cannot refute this logic, but they resist accepting it because it requires them to endorse a larger rather than a smaller role for modern science.

More science had already reduced some of the harm from chemical farming highlighted by Carson; bringing in more science to farming now is still the best way to address the environmental impacts by making farming more efficient. The Organic movement has proved to be still wedded to its ideological roots.
The prevalence of the “nature knows best” ideology has been possible because the west has already seen so much improvement in agricultural productivity, as a result of science and technology, that it is well-fed and unwilling to take on yet more in this sector, switching its concerns to reducing the impact on the environment of farming.

Paalberg accepts that this stance makes sense in the west with its excesses of CAFOs, and a subsidy system that encourages over-application of Nitrogen fertiliser, and problems of obesity rather than starvation.
In addition, the modern world seemed to feel an acute sense of loss of community and connection with the natural world and began to harbor romantic notions of returning to an agrarian past.
What might be understandable if misguided at home has become disastrous in Africa, where essentially farmers are poor- and therefore sometimes hungry- because of too little science, rather than too much. African farmers mostly own their own land (unlike in South America) and so would be well placed to benefit from improvements in crop technology for example, but a combination of powerful western NGOs and corrupt African governments discouraged investment in this area.

{Correction 16-09-10: Paalberg does not say most African farmers own their own land but emphasises that there is far more access to in Africa than in, say Latin America, with only 15 landless landless people in the countryside to every 100 smallholders: “This greater prevalence of land-secure smallholder farmers among the poor in rural Africa increases the chance they will benefit from a farm-technology upgrade. Yet not just any upgrade will do. A new farming technology will be pro-poor as well as pro-growth only if it raises the the total factor productivity of small as well as large farms.”}

This opposition to science is most strongly expressed when it comes to genetically engineered crops. This technology was first being developed at a time when public science funding in agriculture was declining, leaving private corporations like Monsanto to step in and lead the way. The organic movement has banned the use of GE crops; Europe has kept GE food crops out altogether so far. Paalberg sees the ideology behind this as going beyond the simple environmental and health concerns, extending to issues of carrying capacity and population:

Carsonian environmentalists were offended because gene transfer was so clearly an attempt to engineer and dominate nature rather than live within nature’s normal reproductive constraints.

Perversely, the environmental concerns of the rich world became transplanted into Africa, where people struggle to feed themseleves still.
“Farming in Africa is a world apart from farming in Europe or North America” writes Paalberg, and goes onto say:

In Africa…farmers today are not involved in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, nonindustrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are de facto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed.

Yields of maize in Malawi for example are less than one tenth of yields in the US.
Many NGOs working in Africa seem motivated to keep them this way. Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace places a great emphasis on safeguarding the “traditional knowledge” of the Africans. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) is the most prominent amongst NGOs promoting organics in developing countries; their mission in Africa is not to increase productivity but to enlist farmers there into the organic movement. Since so few farmers use synthetic chemicals it will be easy to get them certified. “Poor and nonproductive” Paalberg notes ruefully , “but certified organic.”

Paalberg is scathing about some of the approaches by NGOs. The German organisation Networking for Ecofarming in Africa has partners in 13 African countries to warn them of the dangers of “Western agricvulture” supplanting indigenous knowledge, yet promotes biodynamic farming in its workshops.

German trainers at one NECOFA session in Kenya in 2005 took the time to introduce local participants the importance of light rhythms from the planets and to instruct them in developing manure preparations that included essential bits of stinging nettle, chamomile, and cow horn (NECOFA 2005). Such knowledge is neither farmer-derived nor indigenous to Africa. Nor is it even knowledge.

Pedalling pseudo-science to hungry people is akin to quack therapists promoting homeopathy for AIDS or malaria.
Paalberg details the political process used by NGOs, aided and abetted by the UN and supported by a complacent governments in the west and corrupt urban-based officials in Africa, to block the use of science to improve the farmers lot there.
How much of this is to support lifestyle choices of the rich in western countries? Paalberg sees it as neo-colonial in its effects: nearly all certified organic produce in Africa is specialty crops destined for the west, not food for the locals. “Organic farming advocates from IFOAM nonetheless like to assert that organic agriculture in developing countries is not a luxury but somehow a precondition for attaining food security.”

What could GE crops do for African farmers? The most obvious is drought-tolerance (DT). Monsanto has played a big role in developing DT corn in the US, but African will have to wait before they can try it. Only South Africa is an exception to the red tape and stiffing restrictions that all other African governments have place don GE technology, following the European model.
In any case, the big companies are not developing DT varieties suitable for Africa because they see little commercial gain there; African farmers are simply too poor. If GE gets into Africa, it will be through philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation called Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa (AGRA). Monsanto is working with AGRA however to donate some of its technology to develop DT crops there. There remain many political obstacles, and Africa which needs this new technology more than anyone, seems destined to be the last to get it.
Friends of the Earth have been opposed to DT crops in Africa since 1999, citing the danger of them growing in areas currently unavailable to other crops as one of its main objections to GE.

“How strange that agricultural crops with new growth potential would be seen as a threat by the NGO community” notes Paalberg, “but such was the new political reality.”

A new generation of GE crops may help shift attitudes in the Europe. So far, the technology has been used to benefit farmers, with little apparent benefit to the consumer; new crops may have tangible benefits to those who eat them, and as with GE in medicine- which has not met with the same opposition- may then come to be more accepted.

Paalberg makes a tightly argued case for the unnecessary prolonging of hunger in Africa being at least partly fueled by ideological and even religiously motivated western NGOs. While there is an understandable attraction to the simple life of living from the land in the west- something that I have shared- those of us who choose this life are wealthy enough to afford everything from tools and polytunnels to the best seeds we can get, and we do not have to worry about going hungry if the rains dont come.

GE and other scientific advances would farmers here, and the environment also, but we are wealthy enough -because of the benefits technology has brought us so far- to have the choice. To actively campaign to keep these benefits from the poor is not just anti-science, but anti-humanity.

Whole Earth Discipline

As mentioned in my last post for GMO-Skeptics Forum, one of the major influences in my journey from Dark Green Chicken-Little to pragmatic techno-optimist was Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Discipline.
This makes interesting reading for me four years later, as I was on the cusp of a new understanding on some key environmental issues: I was still in the grip of peak oil paranoia; I had not yet grasped what is really happening with population or even how fundamental the issue has been for environmentalism; and I would also be much more skeptical these days of apocalyptic climate predictions.

In particular, this book started me questioning the assumptions of my environmentalist tribe on GMOs, which I have since learned a lot more about and written many more posts on.
The review comes over to me now as wordy and long-winded, but this reflects partly the inner struggle I was going through as some of my core beliefs began to be re-aligned, so it serves as a testimony to that process as well as a hopefully useful review of a still important book.

From the Archives: First published on Zone5 March 22nd 2010

Book Review:
Whole Earth Discipline -An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books 2009 316pp

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“Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem”.

Stewart Brand is one of the iconic founders of the environmental movement, an original old hippy whose influence on the boomer generation should not be understated. With his latest book Whole Earth Discipline he takes that same movement to task for rejecting science and getting sidetracked by ideology at the very time when the practical application of science through engineering and technology may be the only way to save ourselves.
I came across an early copy of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, on an early visit to a small “back to the land” commune about 25 years ago. It was a thrilling introduction to the possibilities of the burgeoning “alternative” lifestyle of organic gardening and renewable energy I was joining at the time.

Over the coming years, I read about his early involvement in LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and currently have a copy of his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now on my bookshelf.
In a recent interview, I heard Brand take on the environmental movement’s anti-science stance on various issues. I have been grappling with this issue myself for some time now, particularly in the credulous acceptance by most green organisations of “alternative medicine” for which there is no evidence, and the anti-science diatribes that are inevitably summoned up in defense.

More recently I have discovered for myself how little science there is behind the health claims of organic food, and how organisations such as the Soil Association are often pseudo-scientific in their claims and their treatment of evidence.
Whole Earth Discipline challenges the greens on four more holy cows: population, urbanisation, nuclear power and Genetically Engineered crops, and in reading this compelling and fascinating book I have had to do some serious re-thinking around these issues myself. Read the full post »

GMOs and me in 500 words

First published yesterday on GMO Skepti-Forum

Impermaculture

I left college 27 years ago with a fairly typical anti-establishment ideology.
Having flirted briefly with CND and the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s, I determined that there was no hope for modern civilisation- that it was unsustainable- and resolved to a back-to-the land life of self-sufficiency. I quickly got involved with permaculture which I still teach a version of to this day.
My first encounter with GMOs was at an Earth Day event in Maynooth around 1998. Vandana Shiva was there, and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, debating with a Monsanto executive. Many of my friends had been involved with direct action against Monsanto trials in Wexford, which put paid to GMOs in Ireland for a long time. I went along unquestioningly with the strongly held views of my tribe, but even then I was vaguely aware that I really didnt know anything about GMOs.
Some years later as I learned more about science and critical thinking I became disillusioned with the permaculture movement, with its New Age religious beliefs and superstitions. Slowly, painfully, I found an effective debunking for one environmentalist myth after another. The turning point on GMOs was reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline and Professor Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchuk’s Tomorrow’s Table. I remember racing through the earlier chapters of Brand’s book to get to the bit on GMOs. It was a revelation- everything everyone I knew was saying turned out to be false.

I became fascinated by both the science and the sociology, politics and psychology. I went on holiday to the US and visited Pam and Raoul at their home in California, and got to see Pam’s lab where I met my first transgenes. I engaged in countless debates on Facebook, Twitter and blog threads. I lost many long-standing friends and to some extent have become estranged from my community. I have been constantly surprised by the viciousness and blatant dishonesty people I previously respected have been willing to engage in in order to defend their irrational beliefs. It turns out that the anti-science of the Greens is not progressive and “left-wing” but rather betrays a deeply conservative, traditionalist and reactionary mindset. GMOs are just a form of advanced plant breeding; historically, new methods of breeding have often been opposed by the status quo.
Activists can only see things in simplistic black-and-white terms and absurd conspiracy theories. Theirs is a darkly narcissistic and negative view of humanity which they seem to despise, in contrast to the assumed purity of Nature which they revere, oblivious to how Nature only seems sublime when you have a full belly.
On the other hand I have also been surprised and delighted at the more open-minded students on my course who have shown it is possible for people to shift their thinking, sometimes dramatically and quite quickly, just from having new information presented in an interesting and engaging fashion.
They are the ones who give me hope and make the battles seem all worthwhile.

Permaculture Dreams

We are definitely on a roll with permaculturalists coming out and taking pot-shots at their own movement.
Here is another one, from Hugel-Kultur expert Paul Wheaton.

Wheaton grew up with commodity farming and “knowing what a challenge this was, what a risk it entails”, he wanted something else.
He turned to Permaculture, and, acknowledging the slipperiness of any definition of the term, has come up with his own original:

Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with Nature, so I can be even lazier.

This seems very much in keeping with the notion that permaculture offers a magic solution to the problem of having to work for your living: if only we apply the principles of Mother Nature, food will just fall into our mouths.

“I don’t like “sustainable’ ” opines Paul ‘it means ‘barely not dead’.”
Which is a fair point- like permaculture “sustainable” is another weasel-word which is rarely defined, but is put to use to mean anything you want it to.

What does Wheaton want from permaculture design?

“I’m shooting for something like a lush jungle. Here in Montana, I see mono-crops like wheat which is a type of grass, but a sparse type; it looks very unhealthy to me….
I just kind of feel like, when you have a lot of diversity, then you get a lot more yield per acre; plus it is a joy to be around- I think we would all prefer to spend time sitting in a garden than to spend time sitting in a wheat field.”

You’ve gotta love this- “I just kinda feel like…” is good enough for the self-respecting Permie, no need for troubling with all that boring old peer-reviewed studies and science, no sir! And diverse plantings of questionable yields have just got to be better, because you know, no one wants to hang out for fun in the middle of a 1000 acre monocrop of wheat or soy. I guess not, and I know exactly how he feels, since I also tend to prefer sitting in a garden designed for the purpose of recreation, or a natural woodland or out on the mountains, rather than pic-nicking and hiking on huge industrial farms. Still, you could speculate that large fields of arable crops might bring pleasure to the farmer- the pride and satisfaction of a job well done, a sense of purpose that he is actually feeding the world perhaps- but what do mono-crop farmers know anyway, right? Read the full post »

The Heretic’s Guide to Vegan Cookery

Update: Andy Murray has emailed me with glad tidings- he tells me “the book has just been picked up by a publisher last month so it’ll be coming out later this year as a updated, improved, more recipes and photos and a more cooky cookbook. Also on kindle too.”
Watch this space for updates!
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More from the Zone5 Archives. This book is too tasty to resist!
Originally Posted on 12 November 2009 on the now-deceased Zone5 blog

Book Review: The Heretic’s Guide to Vegan Cookery
Modern animal-free recipes from around the world with added musings inspired by the Isle of Avalon According to Harmonically Challenged Cook-
Andy Murray
Warning! Not suitable for Breatharians
The Good Elf Press 2009
187pp

Heretics guide to Vegan cookery

Astrology is an amazing tool to run your life by, without having to waste time with the fraudulent pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo of Science. Astrology explains wars, thunderstorms and plagues. We can even use it historically. For example, if we know exactly when and where Queen Elizabeth was born, we can find out exactly who she was without having to waste time on fictitious history books. With it we can even discover why Einstein was so damn clever. Astrology is way better than sex.

You don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy Andy Murray’s brilliant Heretic’s Guide, which is packed with dozens of tasty simple recipes to satisfy even the most hardened omnivore at least some of the time, you don’t even need to have any great interest in cooking or even food. That is because for our amusement and philosophical delectation there are numerous passages in between the recipes giving us fascinating and hilarious perspectives from the Mecca of New Age beliefs in Britain, the town of Glastonbury near where the author lives.

While waiting for the pumpkin soup to cook or in between making preparations for the Hazelnut and Celery Risotto you will be able to work up an appetite by rolling around clutching your belly after reading the sure -to-become-classic passages “Reiki Reiki Rise and Shine” “Cooking with Astrology” or “Breeding Gurus for Profit”.

This book has it all really- great advice on cooking with fresh ingredients and all the usual good reasons to grow your own and buy local; loads of easy to follow recipes including a big choice of soups, salads and dips; and inspirational chapter on cooking in the great outdoors, including a useful guide to wild food; Posh Things to Do with Vegetables; Main Meals; Side Dishes and Extras; Desserts, and Cakes and Biscuits.

And then the alternative Contents covers everything else- Cults, Gurus, Satanism, Religion, Crop Circles, Homeopathy- nothing is sacred and nothing is spared the sharp rib-splitting egg-whisk of Murray’s irreverence.

Homeopathic Cookery Doubters of this form of cookery pour scorn on the fact that a diner might receive a drop of gravy and a shred of carrot on a plate. How can this be a meal, they ask? What they fail to understand is that carbon,the building block of all life, has a memory. A potentised meal maintains a complete carbon hologram, the information of the whole, even down to the smallest atomic sum of its parts.A homeopathic amount of food is of course more than sufficient to provide all the nutritional benefits that would be expected from a plateful of food, and puts paid to any shrill cries of fraud. Filthy skeptics who come to the homeopathic table having already made up their tiny minds will throw down their napkins and walk away still believing what they believe to be true, and little can be done to change their wrongness.

Even Murray’s own sacred Creed of Veganism is given the once-over. This is something I know a little about, because I once lived in a vegan community on the Welsh Borders. I was not especially into veganism per se and went there to learn to grow vegetables; I happily lived a vegan diet however, but was aware of an acute divide between some of my fellow communards, who seemed to be at each others throats all the time.

On one extreme there were the the vegans who were happy to eat anything so long as it was vegan, including skip food, vegan chocolate from Malaysia (or somewhere) and chip buttys. This group of vegans were also keen to give over some of the best land we had to rescued sheep and aging dogs, and generally turn the place into an animal sanctuary.

All this tended to jar somewhat with the second group who apart from being rather snobby in their choice of edibles- Vegan Organic Wholefoods only, no white flour allowed, lots of Miso- didn’t seem to like animals at all anywhere near them. Wild animals were OK in their own wild homes, but no pets, farm animals or incontinent retired donkeys of any kind permitted.

Murray gives a total of 7 Vegan groups, including the Fat Vegan, the Sensitive Vegan and the Style Vegan, but presumable fits into he first category of The Common Vegan:

The most widespread of all vegans, the common vegan has been quietly animal free for years and still hasn’t died. Usually healthy, fit and happy, they tend to be quite normal, although sometimes a little willowy to stand in a strong wind.

For Murray, veganism might well play a role in a sustainable future, but is mainly just about bloody good food. While no longer a Vegan myself, my animal-free taste buds have been re-awakened by the Heretics Guide and who knows, so have some of my Chakras.

And with that I think Ill go and make a quick Potato Rosti.

If alternative farming worked, it would just be called “farming”.

Another insightful critique of permaculture, this time from Chris Smaje, which I take the liberty of quoting from at length as Smaje summarizes the issues better than I can:

PDC {Permaculture Design Course} syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:

-a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
-a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism;
-likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
-a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
-a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
-a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
-a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
-a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
-a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
-most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations

I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it. And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.

From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:

-a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
-a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
-a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
-a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
-an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems

In truth, I would personally hesitate to say some of those things so baldly without having specific evidence I could point to to back them up; as with Ann Owen’s post discussed last week, Smaje does not mince his words or shy away from direct attack on his prey; nevertheless, I understand everything he is saying and can concur that this is also my experience with that special tribe of permaculture people.

Note Smaje’s accusation towards the end of his list of “a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ “
This seems odd since elsewhere Smaje continues to accuse me also of “irrationalist faith-based scientism”- which seems to be exactly the kind of response he is complaining of receiving himself from the permaculture world.

Just as Owen completely rolled back on her concurrence with myself and Peter Harper that “Permies dont do numbers” by asserting that “No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience” -in other words, anecdotes trump data- so Smaje seems unable to see that those he criticizes will tar him with the self-same epithet he throws at me.

Moreover, again just like Owen- and as I have argued before, like Harper before her, despite having accomplished a fine and comprehensive demolition job on the Cult of Perma, Smaje finds it completely beyond him to join the dots and denounce the movement once and for all:

I’m not going to turn my back on the movement, because I think its basic principles are sound when thoughtfully applied, because generally I like its cheerful can-do amateurism, because I usually find the way it imagines different possible ways of living invigorating, and because there are signs that it’s sharpening up its act.

Can he show us an example of the “principles” being thoughtfully applied? None is offered; but as I argued in my OP, these principles are so vague as to be essentially meaningless- you could point to pretty much anything that vaguely works- including things that would not normally find a place in the Church of Permaculture such as nuclear power stations- and say, ah, look, permaculture principles in action!

(The most obvious example would be genetic engineering- “use of biological resources”, which would also work well of course in the Organics that Smaje defends so fiercely.) The design principles mean literally nothing- they are banal platitudes along the lines of self-help “affirmations”.

The suggestion that there is some kind of “alternative” farming system that applies sensible and thoughtful practical design principles, while the “mainstream” does not, smacks of exactly the kind of “metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present” that Smaje fingers above.

How about “cheerful can-do amateurism”- but that is precisely what the problem is, is it not? Because Smaje himself seems to have done a rather good job of showing that it is really more a gormless-can’t- do-naivety.

“the way it imagines different possible ways of living invigorating”
– see above. “Imagining” that there is a simple way to overcome the problems of modern farming- indeed of the whole world- is a waste of everyone’s time at best, at worst it becomes a harmful cult that leads myriads of people astray and leads ultimately to reactionary and damaging policies. (The anti-GMO movement is based on this fanciful “imagining” just as is the anti-nuclear and anti-fracking movements.) (Hell, why cant these earnest PDC-ers just go to ag school, study science and GET REAL??)

“sharpening up its act” ? The example Smaje points to is Rafter Sass Ferguson’s work, which I have critiqued here. Again, Ferguson seems merely to repeat the same issues already critiqued by Harper et al without any real attempt to resolve them- yet still somehow manages to conclude that permaculture is actually a thing.

Smaje goes onto conclude with some salient points questioning the systems often hailed as permacultural success such as Joe Salatin:

If I could make so bold, part of the success also stems from a certain credulity among the permaculture public, who too rarely ask tough questions of different farming systems. Joel Salatin’s chicken operation is no doubt very productive, but it does rely on bought-in commercial feed, which enthusiasts tend to gloss over. Sepp Holzer has created an amazing-looking farm with some clever ideas that make people want to visit it, and that alone is worth celebrating, but I think the results are open to question on input/output grounds.

Ah yes, those tough questions… inputs and outputs…. but again, these are exactly the same kinds of tough questions asked of Smaje’s darling Organic farming by myself, Mark Lynas, Steve Savage etc, who Smaje sneeringly dismisses as “eco-panglossian” and accuses of worshiping at the Church of Scientism. When responding to more or less the same questions about lower yields for Organic systems and Nitrogen availability, Smaje goes to great lengths to fudge the issue with some hand-flapping about being land-hungry not really being important if we all become Vegan and leave the cities and become peasant farmers again because, you know, “Most of these things require more farmers per hectare: there are various ways in which human labour can substitute at least to some degree for bought in nitrogen. That’s good, right? The government is always saying that ‘creating jobs’ is a good thing…”

Someone needs to explain to Chris that a requirement for more labour to achieve the same productivity is a cost to society, not a benefit. Unless that is, you are a dreamy PCD graduate on the dole or a trust fund who thinks food will just fall into your mouth if you only imagine it so.

He also makes the rather remarkable claim that, if innovation can increase energy availability, then it can also increase actual land area. Say what?! “Maybe somebody will find a clover variety that doubles fixation rates.” Yes Chris, that is indeed an example of innovation that could increase yields. Unless it involves genetic engineering of course- then it would be an example of “eco-Panglossian Scientism” and Very Bad.

Again, on his post discussing Nitrogen availability, Smaje is doing a very good job of explaining why Organics is seriously problematic. The real problem with it though is simply that it is hand-tied with ideology: the original idea of Organics comes from Steiner’s Biodynamics fairy-astrology woo, and Lady Eve Balfour, who founded the Soil Association, who failed to prove her own hypothesis, that food grown with synthetic chemicals would lead to a deterioration of plant, animal and human health:

The many different chemical analyses, carried out on crops and livestock products, revealed no consistent or significant differences between the sections, other than the usually higher water content of the chemically grown fodder. Seasonal variations, and those between fields in the same section, often exceeded average sectional differences. But this lack of difference was in itself significant in that on the organic section, receiving no added minerals the analysis of soil and crops showed a nutrient status that remained consistently as high as that of the others.


(-Towards a Sustainable Agriculture–The Living Soil Lady Eve Balfour IFOAM 1977)

The Organic ideology originates in the 19th Century spiritualist belief in vitalism- the idea that life contained some kind of mystical substance that could not be synthesized in a lab- a superstition that had already been falsified by Friedrich Wohler in 1828 when he synthesized urea.
Unfortunately, the Organics movement never caught up and has been left behind with much lower yields and a higher environmental footprint ever since.

Bootstrapped to its own ideology- and there is no earthly reason otherwise to eschew synthetic N- Organics has to tie itself in knots to justify itself. Smaje himself claims that he is not opposed in principle to “small amounts” of synthetic fertiliser- but ignores the fact that this would never be permitted under Organic standards. The whole raison d’etre of Organics is that it never uses synthetics, regardless of any other considerations (including environmental impacts of being more land-hungry).

Since it has also rejected- indeed, some would say, defined itself as anti- GMO, Organics has a very tough up-hill struggle to meet the aspirations of increased yields that Smaje alludes to.

And this raises another curious point, one mentioned in the thread after Ann Conway’s post on Transition Network: that the problem of modern agriculture might not after all be lack of yield, but the opposite- one of over-production. Smaje is also indirectly making this curious, perhaps even pathological, point- despite the permaculture injunction of “Obtain a Yield” it turns out that we should deliberately devise low-yielding systems like permaculture and Organics in order to save the world from the terrible scourge of over-production, food waste and obesity.

So that is why permaculture is so damn appealing- easy to have a low-yielding system! Just don’t bother weeding so much, or using fertiliser, or developing high-yielding crop varieties!

Here I invoke a Twitter hashtag: #firstworldproblems. These issues deserve new posts of their own, but suffice it here to point out that food waste and obesity is a result of plenty, and feasts, while sometimes involving distasteful sins of gluttony, are far, far preferable to famines. Smaje also indicates he has some awareness of the complexities of the global food issue when he points out that all this synthetic nitrogen is all very well, but does not always get distributed properly, is over-used by some while those who might really benefit from it go without. I could not agree more- which is why I do not advocate Organics as a realistic means of feeding the world and alleviating hunger.

Both permaculture and Organics have failed to show any kind of value as “alternatives” to “conventional” (I would prefer to say “normal”) farming. If they worked as well, they would just be called “farming”.

The Trouble with Transition

Great post last week on Transition Network by blogger Ann Owen called The Trouble with Permaculture.

Just as I did in my recent look at the same topic, the Cult of Perma, Ann draws on Peter Harper’s fascinating critique from early last year and comes to pretty much the same conclusions that we do:

I’m not surprised that Permaculture hasn’t caught on with mainstream food growers. When I first encountered it about twenty years ago, I found it off putting, to say the least. Maybe it was the way it was presented as the ultimate solution to all the world’s ills, or maybe it was the zealous, superior attitude of its devotees, telling me how to garden when most of them wouldn’t know one end of a spade from the other, but I concluded that Permaculture was something that urbanite dreamers did from their armchairs and was to be avoided like any other cult.

Permaculture and the Transition movement have always been closely associated with each other- Transition founder Rob Hopkins after all first concocted the Transition idea while teaching permaculture in Ireland, and Transition is often seen as a form of “social permaculture” that also promotes of course the gardening and land management ideas of permaculture.

So seeing a Transition blogger refer to permaculture as “Cult” seems pretty outspoken, and controversial- risking raising the ire of the very “urbanite dreamers” who in fact play an important role in supporting both movements. (Imagine having this discussion about, say, the value of homeopathy: “all that Quantum memory of water stuff? just over-enthusiastic hippies. Rubbish. Homeopathy is still really cool though.”)

Like Harper though I dont feel Ann really manages to join the dots and make the logical conclusions from her initial promising start. She continues by saying, that was then, in the old days, and she has come a long way since then. Although as a grower herself she can see that growing strange vegetables underneath fruit trees and mulching won’t manage to challenge monocultural straight rows and maybe a tractor or two in terms of doing the heavy lifting of feeding the planet, she still believes in the Cult of Perma:

Permaculture is now an integral part of my life; it offers me a different way of seeing the world and of understanding how it all works. I find that when I’m not sure of something, checking it against the three PC ethics of Earth care, people care and fair shares, gives me an additional perspective.

Read the full post »

Sky Gardens and Moon Planting

No it’s not that kind of Moon Planting- I’m talking about actually growing crops on the Moon and in space, just one of the ambitious and unusual career opportunities proposed in the inspiring talk by James Wong last night in Cork.

IMG_1512

The talk was hosted by the Biological, Earth and Environmental Science department, UCC. Speaking to a packed auditorium of mainly young horticulture students, TV botanist James Wong was keen to show a career in horticulture could be exciting, sexy, cutting edge, and perhaps most of all, lucrative.

Keen to get away from the typically uninspiring openings he sees on the internet, which paint a picture of horticulture as just back-breaking unskilled work aimed at “tidying up” garden borders, James invited us to consider opportunities as diverse as:

- the “living walls” or vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc;
-“living buildings” with movable panels of micro-algae in the walls which replace AC for cooling;
the amazing Botany Builders who are developing buildings that literally are living, made of trees;

Park-royal Sky Garden, Singapore

Park-royal Sky Garden, Singapore

- for those looking for something on a grander scale there may be inspiration to be found in holding back the deserts in China with Great Green walls of millions of trees;

or in designs like the amazing Sky Gardens of Singapore.

And if that was not enough to attract even the most adventurous horticulturalist eager to break the mold of growing the ubiquitous begonias, yes, there might even be opportunities in space with NASA’s project to grow plants on the moon by 2016- an essential first step to allow humans to travel into deep space.

James also catered for those with a more down-to-earth approach to gardening by discussing the interesting commercial and entertainment value of unusual edibles such as Synsepalum dulcificum the “miracle berry” that makes even raw rhubarb taste delicious shortly after eating some; or the potentially huge commercial potential in the anaesthetic properties of Spilanthes acmella, the “Electric Daisy”, also known as the toothache plant.

James is unapologetic in his futuristic and technophile approach, along with his irrepressible plant-geekery, and was not afraid to make a gentle jibe about someone who was objecting that their interest in plants was to “feed the world” rather than make money (one might aspire to do both of course). A couple of his sometimes outspoken and controversial views stuck with me:

At one point in the talk he showed a familiar map of North Africa, showing the relatively small square that, if entirely covered with pv solar panels could theoretically supply the whole world’s electricity. James was rather dismissive of such claims- “people live there” he said, “it would have an impact.” Just as importantly, solar cells do not have a very long life-expectancy, only about 25 years. Smart design solutions with plants however, which grow and reproduce themselves- now that might have much more promise for ecological restoration and even, as in his living walls examples, substitute for some energy production and efficiency.

The other idea was about innovation and change: horticulture in Britain, James thinks, has become stuck in a rut and is extremely conservative and unwilling to try new ideas- everyone just grows Begonias. There might be bold new ideas in British architecture, but “Why do we have to live as if it is 400 years ago when we go outdoors?” The irony in this retro-romantic, conservative trend is that when, in this part of the world, we think of heritage, we tend to think about how the Victorians did things, with their style standing for stability and tradition. Yet the Victorians themselves, in garden design at least according to James, were anything but conservative in style, and were obsessed with novelty, in design, new plant varieties, new concepts. In truth, we would be more like the Victorians with our approach to gardens, plants and perhaps even the natural world if we reached more for the stars.

Renewable Energy cannot sustain a Consumer Society

Continuing my series re-posting archive posts from my old permaculture/peak oil blog Zone5, which has now gone to the Great Blogosphere in the Sky….

The Peak Oil movement has done some good things: it has made us aware of how dependent upon fossil fuels we are, how many energy slaves we have working for us day and night; and how absurd it is therefore to claim that it is crazy to be using them, or that there is a simple alternative. Not.

Well the first two are true- Peak Oil really did do that for me, leading to me learn a great deal about energy of all sorts and think about energy in our daily lives very carefully. But in general, peak-oilers, power-downers and Transitioners shirk the logical conclusion that, as the old song goes, we “might as well face it- we’re addicted to oil” – and that that is not a bad place to be; instead, they either indulge in collapse-porn or fuel the deluded idea that wind and solar, combined perhaps with a return to Medieval peasant lifestyles, could realistically replace our immoral high-energy lifestyles.

Some in the peak oil/climate change movement were not so sanguine about what wind and solar could achieve however. The first book I ever read on the problems of trying to come off oil, years before I had ever heard the phrase “peak oil” was The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thomm Hartmann.
At the end of the book he explains how modern wind turbines and pv solar cells are themselves entirely dependent on cheap fossil fuels -not to mention a complex globalized industrial base- to manufacture them.
Another writer firmly in the “civilisation-is-bad-and- we- should-return to simpler-lifestyles” camp but who could see through the myth of replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar power is Ted Trainer. Below is a review of his book on the subject which formed one of my earliest Zone5 posts.

My views on the false claims made for renewables are one of the things that have not changed since those days. They have become more informed: in particular, I would refer to Colin McInnes’ analysis showing the importance of energy density: fossil fuels and nuclear power are two- or three orders of magnitude more energy dense than diffuse and unreliable wind and solar power.
If we look at the world leader in transition to renewables- Germany with its Energiewende- we can see even from a recent favorable report how this translates into real practical obstacles: firstly, to reach 100% renewables (including biomass and storage of surplus power as gas through electrolysis and methanation- an as yet hardly developed technology) is predicated on a 50% reduction in total energy consumption- almost as unrealistic as Trainer’s views;
and apart from anything else, includes covering fully half of Germany’s entire arable land in solar cells. An interesting thought experiment perhaps, but hardly practical.

Where I differ with Trainer today of course is a)his assumption that such a powerdown scenario is necessary or desirable; and
b) his views on “peak uranium” should nuclear power be pursued: predictions of “peak” are nearly always wrong because they underestimate the development of new technology, for new resource discoveries, new extraction technologies, and new efficiencies in end-use: fast-breeder reactors which are in the pipe-line are able to extract more than 90% of the energy from uranium fuel rods, as opposed to just 1-2% from current models. And after Uranium of course, there is Thorium.

I would also be strongly critical of his advocacy of “the Simpler Way”. There is no way to objectively differentiate “needs” from “wants”, and attempts to lay down the law and tell everyone else what constitutes “enough” seem paternalistic and oppressive. They are also based on deeply flawed Limits to Growth thinking, creating a sort of scarcity-consciousness which I feel all too often leads to a self-serving romanticizing of poverty. I also completely reject his idea that technology s not key- it is not the only crucial element, but for the billions of urban dwellers to have good lives into the future will certainly need ongoing technological innovation, as will farming and food production.

The moral approach to addressing poverty and inequality will certainly involve more energy consumption, not less.

Book Review: Ted Trainer – Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

Originally Posted on 9 September 2007 on Zone5

Ted Trainer, of the University of New South Wales, has made a valuable contribution to the literature of energy and resource depletion with his new book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.
The title says a lot I think. With the focus of most mainstream debate on peak oil and energy being on the supply side- the oil is running low so what are we going to use instead?- Trainer brings a refreshing approach in which he provides a detailed and technically comprehensive analyses of existing renewable energy options- including wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass and energy crops, and hydrogen, as well as a look at nuclear and the issue of storing energy- and concludes:
“…we could easily have an extremely low per capita rate of energy consumption, and footprint, based on local resources- but only if we undertake vast and radical change in economic, political, geographical and cultural systems.”
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