Monty Python and the Tale of Sir Robin

Simon Singh has received a response from media celebratory and Soil Association chief Monty Don in response to his two questions concerning organic farming.

Apart from completely evading the relevant scientific issues Singh raises, Don makes the following extraordinary comment:

Having known you for nigh on 20 years – albeit with great gaps – I suspect that you are as temperamentally and intellectually suited to immersing yourself in organic, holistic agriculture as I am in particle physics. Your mind just doesnt work that way. That does not make you wrong or me right. Well,OK, I am just being polite but it doesn’t make you bad for being wrong…

WTF?! I mean, really, what is he actually getting at here? And what is the Bigger Picture about “organic, holistic agriculture” ?

Perhaps picking up on Singh’s admission that organics is not really his subject, Don recommends some reading:

Suggest you inform yourself a lot more before taking this any further. If you are genuinely interested in understanding what it is all about start by reading Michael Pollan, Colin Tudge and Rob Hopkins. No specific scientific work so you may not feel comfortable with it but very good cross section of the field.

Let’s have a look at what these three authors have to say on the subject under discussion:

Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is celebrated by foodies, and it is certainly an original perspective and well-written survey of many of the issues in food production.

But in Chapter 9 he takes a look at Big Organic and concludes

So is an industrial organic food chain finally a contradiction in terms? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is…. The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an eco-system that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun. To feed ourselves otherwise was “unsustainable”, a word that’s been so abused we’re apt to forget what it specifically means: Sooner or later it must collapse. To a remarkable extent, farmers succeeded in creating a new food chain on their farms:trouble began when they encountered the expectations of the supermarket. As in so many other realms, nature’s logic has proved no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given. And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most uncomfortable, and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.

Pollan is aware of the limitations of trying to live “sustainably”- he is accutely aware of course of how impractical it would be for him to always eat the hunter-gatherer meal he prepares for himself in the last section, because of the extreme amounts of time and work it would involve; and so ends his book with something of a lament:

..imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the earth.

Ding Ding! Naturalistic Fallacy- sorry, Michael, “nature” does not have “grace” and does not give a wit as to whether we eat or not- we eat by dint of our own ingenuity and hard work, and famines were a constant threat until the advent of industrial food and the globalised food industry. The Malthussian fears of a burgeoning population outstripping food supply have not been realised because of technology. Any move back to nature will not only turn us into peasant laborers but will also put us right back as defenseless against the vagaries of nature and living always in the shadow of hunger.

Colin Tudge, in his 2003 book So Shall We Reap is another prominent critic of modern farming, and while convinced that its “unsustainability” could be our downfall, nevertheless addresses many of the very shortcomings of organics raised by Lynas and Singh, specifically the need for extra land:

Organic farming has much to recommend it, of course, but could it in conscience be recommended to all the world? I find it hard to see how…Manure can be polluting…could organic farmers really double their input of nitrogen, as they would need to do to maintain present agricultural output if artificials were banned? Could they double it again in the next fifty years as world population doubles? Nobody knows but the odds are surely against.

…if yield is lower farming must then occupy more space, spreading into wilderness and into marginal land that should not be cultivated at all.

Tudge correctly concludes that artificial fertiliser need not destroy soil structure or lead to polluting run-off if properly applied- thus “good farming” is always the key- and even points out that we will not run out of natural gas for manufacturing artificial fertliser- he cites a figure of only 1% of fossil fuels currently being required for this- “a small price to pay for half of agriculture’s fertility”- and that it could be easily made from solar power or biofuels(?) if needed. Although Tudge is opposed to GMOs, even he accepts that

GMOs are currently deployed for dubious economic and political purposes but the science that has given rise to them should not be banished out of hand.

Pollan and Tudge are well-known published authors on food and farming, but Hopkins, really?! There must be some mistake. Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins would not I think qualify as, nor claim to be an expert on organics, although like the other two he is of course a strong proponent of it. Unfortunately, he has found the wet summer too much for his own garden which has been overtaken by slugs; at least he confesses to the limitations of self-sufficiency in such circumstances, but shirks the logical conclusion that it is a globalised food industry which leads to true resilience, allowing us to grow the most suitable crops in the most suitable climates and ship in surplus to where there is a shortfall.

In the same post, he challenges the genetic engineers to do something (Hopkins and most of his followers are vehemently opposed to GE):

If those people working on genetically modified crops while also claiming to be working for the benefit of mankind actually want to do something useful, perhaps they might engineer a kind of grass that you could grown in your lawn that would be more attractive to slugs than the things you actually want to eat? Or engineer a slug that prefers the boring stuff that you don’t actually want to eat (like brambles, Woundwort or bindweed) to the stuff you want? Just a thought.

More likely, it might be possible to insert slug-repellant genes directly into the plants, as the Bt pesticide has been successfully engineered into corn and cotton, thus saving vast amounts of sprays. (My comment to this effect was deleted as I am banned from Hopkin’s blog.)

(I should say that as a gardener I found most of Rob’s post quite amusing and I do sympathize, though I have not had nearly as much trouble with slugs as he describes; it’s a great gardening column, easy to forget that this is a writer who heads up an influential international movement that is opposed to modernity and influenced by quacks and other doyens of New Age occultism.)

Transition Towns, like much of the organics/back-to-the-land movements, resembles a Medieval re-enactment society, aiming to turn back the clock to an imagined romantic past of local communities growing their own veg and darning their own socks under lights powered by windmills and solar panels, while fleeing in fear, like Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin, from the very technologies-such as genetic engineering and precision farming- that might actually improve farming and ameliorate both world hunger and some of the excesses of industrial farming.

The idea, you see is to turn everyone back into peasant farmers: organics takes a lot more labour, and for it to increase its tiny market share from just a couple of percent at present to challenge conventional farming would require the wholesale reversal of the main demographic movement from parochial country to cosmopolitan city that defined the 20th century.

So what was that “Bigger Picture” again that Don speaks of? Maybe he found it on this Biodynamic farm he visited in 2002 in the Black Mountains, where a family are using the magical methods of Steiner’s astrology and alchemy to grow vegetables on poor land where “The Soil Association wanted money to even talk to them.”

Don admits BD is whacky:

But there is an aspect of biodynamics that needs to be taken with a dumper truck of salt. This is the essential tenet that cosmic and terrestrial forces can be harnessed for the benefit of soil and plants by the mixing of certain preparations. These range from oak bark buried over winter in the skull of a domestic animal to Valerian flowers buried inside a stag’s bladder. The preparations are used in minute quantities – such as a level teaspoon to 10 tons of compost. Crazy stuff.

but cannot quite dismiss it because the farmers are “models of health and vitality” and the veg is just sooooo tasty. The whole place seems a picture of the rural idyll amongst rolling green pastures with a communal lifestyle and plenty of laughter in the fields, that many organics supporters yearn for.

But he gives it all away in the last paragraph:

Conventional farmers and growers are in a mess. I suspect that the government is incapable of understanding the problem, let alone providing any solution. The answer lies in us as individuals – gardeners or people brave enough to buy a patch of ground ‘no good for growing vegetables’. And if that is accompanied by the burial of dandelions collected at dawn or a chart of the phases of the moon, then is it any weirder than the damaging potions and incantations of scientists, ministers and so-called experts down the years?

You see Monty, the thing about science is, it provides a method for examining these things rationally, using evidence. Thus, there are plenty of other successful small farms using either conventional or organic methods that are just as successful, where the produce is just as good, the laughter just as vibrant, but without the magic, which adds nothing other than the fog of delusion and the propensity to foster the creation of cults. Biodynamics is not as Don seems to think “one step further down the organic road” -unless that road is one leading back into the Dark Ages of witchcraft and goat-sacrifice.

Betweeen Don’s tolerance of superstition, and his apparent sharing of the aims of Hopkin’s Transition Re-enactment Society, we would seem to have something closer to Monty Python rather than any useful contribution to addressing the very real issues of food and farming in the 21st century.


9 thoughts on “Monty Python and the Tale of Sir Robin

  1. Ha. When biodiversity means something eating your garden (or getting mites or salmonella from your chickens), suddenly the reasons farmers control unwanted species becomes much clearer. I’ve seen that happen more than once with new gardeners.

    They backyard garden movement could be the best thing that happens to this discussion, and not in ways organic-only proponents thought.

  2. Eoin O'Callaghan

    Just in relation to the backyard garden movement mentioned in the first comment, this from a recent issue of the Europeans Commissions Newsletter “Science for Environmental Policy” –

    ‘Contaminated vegetables from polluted gardens may pose health risk

    City dwellers who grow their own fruit and vegetables may be consuming high levels of pollutants. In a recent study, researchers found that vegetables grown on plots in Berlin, Germany, often contained higher concentrations of some heavy metals than shop-bought vegetables, with those grown close to busy roads containing the greatest quantities.

    Interest in ‘grow your own’ vegetables is increasing around the world, and can bring benefits for food security, community wellbeing and the environment. Growing vegetables in home gardens or on allotments is considered to be healthier than buying them from supermarkets, due to lower levels of pesticides. However, growers may not be aware of the potential risks associated with growing vegetables on contaminated soils in urban environments. Previous studies have already suggested that eating vegetables grown on polluted soils could lead to serious health issues.

    The study focused on vegetables grown in central Berlin. They measured concentrations of the metals cadmium, chromium, lead, zinc, nickel and copper in fruits (tomatoes and green beans), root and stem vegetables (carrots, potatoes and kohlrabi) and leafy vegetables and herbs (white cabbage, watercress, chard, basil, mint and thyme). They were also interested in whether nearby traffic was affecting contamination levels, so they divided growing sites into those with high, medium and low traffic burden, taking into account distance to nearest road, the number of vehicles using the road, and any buildings acting as barriers between the growing site and the road.

    Levels of metal contaminants differed widely depending on the metal and the specific crop species. For example, tomatoes contained lower levels of lead than chard, and mint contained higher levels of chromium than basil, green beans and carrots. Overall, however, levels were significantly higher than those in supermarket vegetables. Some of the worst examples were tomatoes containing 11 times as much cadmium and nearly five times as much nickel as supermarket tomatoes, and chard containing six times more zinc than shop-bought chard. Several other crop species contained at least twice the level of at least one metal compared to supermarket products.

    All vegetables contained higher concentrations of lead if they were grown on sites with high levels of traffic. Concentrations of other metals were associated with traffic burden in specific crops. For lead, EU standards were exceeded by two thirds of the crops sampled from sites with high traffic burdens, less than 10 metres from busy roads, but this statistic was reduced to around a third on sites where buildings acted as barriers between the vegetable plot and the road.

    According to the researchers, their study suggests that crops grown in city vegetable plots are not automatically ‘healthy’ or ‘safe’ compared to supermarket products. To reduce contamination levels and health risks, growers should be advised to choose planting sites carefully, based on distance and barriers to traffic. They also suggest that the pollution risks must be weighed against the societal benefits of urban horticulture.


    Source: Saeumel, I. Kotsyuk, I, Hoelscher, M. et al. (2012). How healthy is urban horticulture in high traffic areas? Trace metal concentrations in vegetable crops from plantings within inner city neighbourhoods in Berlin, Germany. Environmental Pollution. 165, 124-132. DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2012.02.019.

    • Thanks for the reference Eoin. I hadn’t seen that. I was aware of earlier work on free-range chickens that are picking up some nasty stuff: Elevated PCDD/F Levels and Distinctive PCDD/F Congener Profiles in Free Range Eggs.

      I understand the appeal of backyard harvesting, but I live in a very old (by US standards) urban place and I’m sure the soil is dreadful. I worry that other people aren’t aware of that issue.

  3. You rightly call out Michael Pollan on the appeal to nature fallacy, but I actually think that’s the smaller of two major problems with the bits you cite. I find the following sentence particularly problematic: “The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an eco-system that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun.”

    I get his point about a food system drawing energy from the sun. The sun gives us lots of energy. But fertility? Fertility requires matter, in the form of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other elements. Aside from nitrogen, if you remove these elements from a plot of land (when crops are harvested), you somehow have to replenish them, and you don’t just find them in sunlight. That’s just the law of conservation of mass.

    Nitrogen is different because it can be converted from the elemental form (which makes up most of our atmosphere) to the biologically available form by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, mainly found in the roots of legumes. That process is powered by solar energy. However, it isn’t really what Pollan is talking about.

    Consider Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, which Pollan presents as a model for sustainable agriculture. Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season.” Incredibly, in the next sentence, he goes on to write, “Apart from some greensand (a mineral supplement to replace calcium lost in the meadows), chicken feed is the only important input Joel buys, and the sole off-farm source of fertility.”

    Pollan recognizes that the chicken feed is a source of fertility, but he misses the point that the nitrogen in the chicken manure is actually just coming from the feed. In other words, Pollan is categorically wrong when he claims that Polyface is “completely self-sufficient in nitrogen.” Polyface just imports its nitrogen in the form of feed grains, rather than bringing in industrial fertilizers directly.

    This raises the rather significant point that organic agriculture doesn’t determine whether fertilizer is allowable based on how the nitrogen is fixed (i.e. synthetically, via the Haber-Bosch process, or naturally by nitrogen-fixing bacteria). It just asks where the nitrogen most recently was; manure is an acceptable fertilizer, regardless of whether the animal that produced it ate conventional or organic feed. So if you have some chemical fertilizer, you can make organic fertilizer by growing a conventional crop, and feeding it to an animal for manure (or composting it). That means that organic agriculture today is allowed to be dependent on the very system it tries to offer an alternative to.

    Of course, in the “organic world,” none of that would be allowable because synthetic nitrogen wouldn’t be permitted at all. However much manure we may have today, it would require some actual work to show that we could have as much manure in the organic world. That point seems to be lost on Pollan (and a number of other organic advocates), who seem to think that animals somehow make the nutrients in their manure. (Pollan even explicitly states in the movie Fresh that animals make nutrients.)

    I don’t claim to know enough about agriculture to say whether organic is a good way to feed the world. However, I don’t have much confidence in somebody like Pollan, who displays a deep misunderstanding of some very basic science which has been known for more than a century, to enlighten me on the question.

  4. I think the basic idea behind a lot of these guys is a pessimism that the way to solve all the problems agricultural technology has brought is not with MORE agricultural technology. That the systems it has spawned are mathematically and physically doomed, and that we don’t have much choice but to eventually use more labor, different processes, and completely change everything. A bitter pill, for sure. If we do it voluntarily, it might have some positive aspects. If we wait until a real crisis to figure out how, we won’t be very happy.

    Just like Nature doesn’t give a crap whether or not we get a bite to eat, it also doesn’t give a crap that our dominant faith is in Technology. It’ll say “that’s nice, naked apes” while it does what it has done for 5 billion years here. If we’re operating unsustainably, the numbers will win, period. If we’re depleting something that’s irreplaceable, Nature will win, period.

    Cuba’s held up as a good example of how it’s possible to convert to organic, by the way. Have you seen “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”?

    Also, there are plenty of studies that show organic can work on a large scale. The secret is not trying to beat industrial agriculture at it’s own game – but changing the game by stacking production, integrating plant and animal systems, etc.

    Recognizing we’re in trouble and suggesting possible solutions does not indicate a lack of appreciation for what technology and industrial ag has done for us, nor a worship of Nature.

    • Yes that is correct- we can and indeed need to solve or at least address problems caused by earlier practices- like excessive use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides- with better technology, and this is what GE can and is delivering: reducing synthetic sprays, allowing no-till systems and thereby reducing soil erosion; and adapting to climate change with flood- and drought-tolerant crops. GE has many other benefits as well. Greens need to wake up and realise that if they oppose GE, they are opposing real, practical solutions to the problems industrial agriculture, and are therefore guilty of and responsible for making these problems worse. You are right that Mother Nature doesnt care about us; without technology, She will eat us. Maybe that is what you would prefer. Your concern about “faith in technology” is misplaced; Humans are not human without technology; here you are writing on a computer- see any contradiction? Ive been involved in gardening for 25 years; it is hard work, and just about everything we do in food production, no matter how you do it, involves technology. Organics is high-tech also these days. Did you know Organics accepts new varieties bred though mutagenesis (radiative forcing) ? It is only technology that allows us to improve production. In Ireland, no organic grower would dream of growing without a polytunnel. That’s not to mention hoes, tractors, drip-irrigation or even wheel-barrows! It’s all technology my friend. Prefer the hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Try that without spears and traps- technology again.
      Yes I have seen the Cuba film about 20 times! And organised several public showings some years ago. We met the Cuban Ambassador in 2009 and showed him the film. He was rather surprised! But although the Organiponicos have done well in Havana, most food in Cuba is still produced from large industrial Soviet-era “chemical” industrial farms. Cuba is a poor country making the most of the little it has got. If it had the chance, it would move away from peasant farming and become rich like us. You are welcome to go and live like the Cubans if you wish, but probably you won’t have time to write about it here, and you may not even have access to the internet, much less your own computer.

      • Besides, the documentary is misleading because it “forgets” to say that Cuba gets cheap oil from Venezuela in exchange for sending doctors there.

  5. You’re attempting to twist what I said to be anti-technology and hypocritical. No straw-man arguments, please.

    What I said is that technology may or may not save us from the problems we’ve created. Some people have faith that it will, again, save us (and not create bigger problems this time). Others don’t think that it will save us from this current set of problems, and that we’d better get to thinking orthogonally.

    Thinking that organic methods are the only safe long-term solution does not equate to wishing we could all live like peasants, or to thinking it will be great fun.

    • Shame you have missed completely what I meant- “technology may or may not save us from the problems we’ve created. Some people have faith that it will, again, save us (and not create bigger problems this time)”- there is no such thing as humans without technology. ALL farming and agriculture is technology, by definition. If you are an organic farmer, and someone comes along with an improved technology, making your work more efficient, will you take it? Could be a better type of polytunnel, improved irrigation, better hoes, crop protection or whatever. If you are actually a gardener/farmer – a professional one, not just an urban green (or hobby farmer like me) you will definitely take the improved efficiency the technology brings. If it is not really an improvement, you will not take it. I presume you mean genetic engineering. This is just an improved farm of plant breeding. Farmers around the world adopt it because it works, it is better. I have explained here, and extensively elsewhere, why genetic engineering is NOT “more of the same”- many GE varieties are being produced specifically to address environmental and sustainability issues- that is why the seed is better! Increased yields and disease control are also important traits. Will GE create more problems? Probably, but all new technology solves some problems and creates new ones; and then new technology will come along and solve those problems in time. There is nothing new about this- humans have always developed new technology to overcome problems, ever since we came down from the trees. Maybe you think we should go back up there? Vague hand-flappy philosophies about “technology” are not going to solve anything that’s for sure.
      I dont think you are wishing we all become peasants; I think you dont realize that without continual innovation in ag., that is where we are heading; you first!

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