R.I.P. Bill Mollison, Father of Permaculture

Bruce Charles ‘Bill’ Mollison b. May 4th 1928, Stanley, Tasmania, Australia;  d. September 24th  2016 in Sisters Beach, Tasmania.

Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison died last Saturday age 88. This blog has been frequently critical of the permaculture movement he founded, and it seems appropriate to share a few thoughts on the man and consider his legacy.

In a brief tribute, David Holmgren comments:

Bill’s brilliance was in gathering together the ecological insights, principles, strategies and techniques that could be applied to create the world we do want rather than fighting against the world we reject.

I think it was this practical can-do attitude, and a disaffection with a protest movement that just seemed to say “down with everything” without any alternative plan to offer,  which attracted me and many others to permaculture in the first place. I first heard about it in about 1984 while still at college, and completed my first design course a few years later while living in Shropshire. It was my first introduction to many things that have held my interest since then, including gardening and horticulture, tree planting and forestry, building and use of natural resources, community and energy… the eclectic nature of permaculture and the sense that it offered a one-stop solution to everything was also I think part of its appeal and seduction- but perhaps also one of its failings.

Of the two permaculture founders, Mollison was by far the more charismatic than his rather dour counterpart, David Holmgren; but in contrast to common perceptions, Mollison was the more rational of the two, taking an irreverent anti-woo stance unfortunately largely ignored by most of the movement that sprouted from his ideas. In his 1996 autobiography Travels in Dreams he makes the memorable comment:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-18-36-01As I have often been accused of lacking that set of credulity, mystification, modern myth and hogwash that passes today for New Age Spirituality, I cheerfully plead guilty. Unqualified belief, of any breed, dis-empowers any individuals by restricting their information.
Thus, permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. we permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations. This scepticism of mine extends to religious and political party ideologies.

 

Unfortunately, it was this very open-endedness and accessibility that diluted the permaculture effect almost to irrelevance. Permaculture was funky but it was never possible to define what it actually was: typically, advocates like to answer “a system of design based on nature” but this turns out to mean virtually anything- although definitely NOT GMOs or fracking. Like the many communes spawned by notions of using natural systems as a model for human systems, permaculture failed to be discerning when it came to adopting new members or new ideas, letting in anything from the biodynamics beloved by David Holmgren to homeopathy and alternative medicine.

Far from being a “system of design” based on Mollison’s famous “key planning tools”, permaculture has really always been a social and political movement, a version of agararian socialism, marching hand-in-hand with Organics, self-sufficiency, and other versions of the back-to-the- land movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Mollison himself is frequently quoted as saying “Permaculture is revolution disguised as Organic gardening”.

Even the original idea of forests being so much more productive (in terms of biodiversity and  biomass) than arable farming, giving rise to the multi-storied perennial forest garden system, is only partly valid as a guiding principle: Mollison himself knew perfectly well growing vegetables under trees was never going to work in temperate regions, which have always been characterized by annual crops and over-wintering storage followed by a “hungry gap” in the early summer.

Today, even the most ardent permaculture enthusiasts produce most of their food in conventional straight rows in raised beds. Much of what has become known as classic permaculture techniques, including swales, pig-tractors and mulching had already been widely promoted by self-sufficiency guru John Seymour.

I met the man once, at the 2005 International Permaculture Convention in Croatia, and enjoyed chatting with him over breakfast there. He was however by then sadly in decline, his petulant behaviour of kicking over chairs on stage while giving and address, to make some point about going against convention, was met with dismay and tuts of approbation. Always the maverick, he was booed at the end of the conference during a discussion on the ethics of using air transport to travel to the next one, when he argued that flying was good for the environment since “everyone knows the real problem is global cooling.”

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Bill Mollison in 2005 at the International Permaculture Convergence, Croatia

It is understandable that experiencing the early, rapid impact of broadscale industrial farming provoked a back-lash. Close up, the transformation of large areas of forest into agricultural fields must have been shocking, to the point of wondering where it would ever stop. Reading through this early interview from 1980 provides some interesting insights into how permaculture arose as an attempt to find a less invasive approach, and also where it went wrong:

-his claims that there is no design of any kind involved in modern agriculture seems wide of the mark. Everything from tractors and herbicides to seed selection and breeding choices necessarily involves design. Mollison gives instead a caricature of the process, research and enormous complexity and international cooperation involved.

The Chinese, for instance, have recently “modernized” their farming methods — that is, they went from hand tilling and fertilizing with natural manures to machine and flame weeding and fertilizing with artificials — and they increased their energy input by 800% in the process. Now they’ve gone beyond that and are heading toward an increase of 1,000%! And all that extra expenditure of energy produced an initial yield growth of only 15% … a figure that’s now declining rapidly. In fact, it now looks as though productivity might even fall below its original level!

History has proved this wrong: despite serious issues with aquifer depletion, China increased its grain production by 2/3rds since then. This may not continue, but projections generally fail to allow for technological innovations- such as genetic engineering and precision agriculture- which can overcome difficulties. Certainly, inputs by way of fossil fuels have increased dramatically. Is this not a good thing, to turn mineral resources into food? They may not be inexhaustible, but ultimately alternatives can be found. Fertilizer use accounts for only a small percentage of global natural gas usage, and world supplies are currently higher than ever.

Predicting doom for US agriculture also, Mollison goes onto make the bold claim that

The problem with today’s agricultural techniques is that—by ignoring the possibility of any design input — they fail to deal with interrelated functions.

Again, while all agriculture has challenges, there is no sign that yields generally will fall or that solutions to problems will not be found. Permaculture failed to account for innovations such as the dramatic spread of no-till methods across the grain-belt, going a long way to solving the problems will soil loss Mollison was so concerned about, but without losing productivity.

On the other hand, extravagant claims are made for the productivity of Fukuoka’s “natural farming” without any evidence being provided- nor did Fukuoka provide any evidence to support claims for high yields, as far as I can find:

Look at Fukuoka: That man, at 74, controls 12 acres at a higher productivity than any other farmer on earth … and he does it all on foot, with no machines whatsoever! And even his design could be improved upon. The point is that, by applying any sort of temporal and spatial pattern, one can literally achieve wonders in the product yields of a system.

There are many problems with Mollison’s design principles:

too much edge can also have downsides, as you provide more access to pests, and can be very hard to manage beyond a certain scale;

adding in multiple functions always involves trade-offs: asking plants to be both food crops and shelter can give you the worst of both worlds;

using biological solutions in a world of high populations can lead to very serious depletions, since they are not “renewable” if extracted beyond the rate of replacement: most of temperate forests, not to mention many whale species, were already over-exploited long before the industrial era.

Like Organics, Permaculture has chosen the path of land sharing, with the aim of combining everything on the same piece of land: maximum food production, maximum biodiversity, maximum eco-system services. While land-sharing certainly has a place, the  continued success of agricultural intensification, and the likely acceleration of marginal land abandonment suggests that land sparing, allowing large areas to be returned to nature and forests as agriculture becomes more productive elsewhere, is proving to be far more significant.

At the end of the day, we can say that nature is not there to provide food and sustenance for humans, and is unlikely therefore to be a good model for our farm systems. Nature should not be mimicked so much as improved on.

The permaculture movement will continue long after the death of this well-loved and popular founding figure, but there are no indications it contains many useful solutions to the challenge of increasing food production for 10 billion humans the planet will need to support in a few short decades.

Permaculture has provided a useful and inspiring introduction to landscaping and gardening to large numbers of people, and has added to the self-sufficiency movement by having a broader remit to encourage people to think much more widely about trees and forestry, water, soil, biodiversity. However, Mollison’s success which lead to the broad appeal of his movement was more that of an accomplished magician, and permaculture a system of smoke-and-mirrors with the design principles concealing the lack of emperor’s attire.

 

The Belly has no Ears: Shakespeare in a time of Famine

An article from a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death  highlights the problems with advocating local food as being more sustainable, and shows again how life in pre-industrial times- before the advent of Big Ag, Supermarkets and global trade- was not always what it was cracked up to be:

during Shakespeare’s time, the English people were plenty hungry. The country saw at least 40 food riots between 1586 and 1631, as historian Buchanan Sharp records in his classic work In Contempt of All Authority. Shakespeare was new on the London scene just as the city was rocked by the food riots of the 1590s. And the bard well knew the hunger-fuelled 1608 “Midland Rising” that affected his home turf in Warwickshire.. Scholars suggest Shakespeare drew on both in writing Coriolanus.

The plot of King Lear  also apparently revolves around food insecurity:

When Lear divides up his kingdom, his daughter Cordelia is granted “the grain-growing areas,” but her sisters, Goneril and Regan, are stuck with Scotland and Wales, which don’t produce bread. “Of course the two sisters are going to invade,” says Turley – otherwise, “they can’t feed their people.”

This is very telling- not all kinds of food grow in every region. Bread wheat for example- an important staple food for most people today-  is not grown in Ireland at all, because the climate is not favorable; obviously we do not grow much citrus fruit in Britain, and the further north you go the less options you have for many crops, and the shorter the growing season.

“Ah- but the sisters [in King Lear] did not have to invade, but could have simply made mutually beneficial arrangements to trade so no-one need go hungry!”

This reminds me of the Facebook meme that suggests the genius idea of everyone growing a different crop and trading -“then we could all eat for free!”, brilliantly demolished in this post.

Well, isn’t that exactly what has happened, progressively over time, and isn’t the success of global trade exactly what has lead to the relative food secure systems we have in place today, in the developed world at least? Today, not only do we have the trading routes and agreements in place, but also the technology to produce much higher wheat yields ensuring that if there is a crop failure in Scotland or Wales, grain can be reliably imported from the more productive lowlands.

Yet people still tell me they feel food insecure, even when they themselves are not farmers and do not depend on the vaguaries of the weather to put food on the table. In effect, the kind of trade that has gone so far to rid the world of the kind of famine situations faced in Shakespeare’s day is being opposed by the so-called Local Food Movement. While some people seem to suggest they are opposed to what they see as “unfair-trade”- and they may well have a point, depending on what is being referred to- the local food movement is essentially against all trade (except local).

This can only result in a return to famine- and wars, for surely, as was a popular saying  in those days, “the belly has no ears.”

Feedback on the Forest Garden

New on theculturalwilderness:

My last post dealt with the permaculture edible forest garden, and it received some commentary on a couple of Facebook groups and permaculture forums. A lot of the responses were, predictably, from permaculture advocates who took umbrage at my having deigned to critique their philosophy at all, but there was one very valid criticism concerning yields: while I had compared weights of different crops per acre, a more useful approach would be to compare calorific yield.

Continue reading

Permaculture and the Edible Forest Garden- a Critical Analysis

I’ve been interested in the edible forest garden idea for over twenty years and have planted and designed several myself in Ireland in that time, and visited several others. But they have never lived up to my expectations and were largely unproductive, despite sourcing as many perennial vegetables and other interesting edible plants as I could. Here I review the claims made for them and what evidence there is to support the idea- and conclude that, as Permaculture founder Bill Mollison said in the first place, in temperate regions you are far better growing your fruit trees and vegetables separately.

Temperate permaculture– is this a passing fad, an idealist’s hobby or is there a case for wider promotion of the practice?

  • Introduction- Design By Nature: Permaculture and the Forest Garden Concept

 “Permaculture” – derived from permanent agriculture – is a concept of sustainable land use and design coined and developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Mollison defined the concept as:

The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems

 (Mollison 1988).

 Since then, permaculture has grown into a worldwide movement of activists and designers applying permaculture principles to the whole of society (Holmgren 2002). Permaculture is more an approach or philosophy than any specific technology, but where it has come under academic scrutiny, many of the kinds of practices frequently advocated have been found lacking in supporting evidence (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In this essay we shall focus on one of the best-known expressions of permaculture design, the edible forest garden or food forest for temperate regions, which are designed with the intention of mimicking the structure and functions of natural woodlands. Successful integration of trees with agriculture for multiple environmental and crop protection functions, nitrogen fixation and fodder is well established in traditional systems in many parts of Europe (Rigueiro-Rodriguez et al 2009), and is gaining renewed interest today as an essential part of agricultural sustainability. It is worth examining why, then, while forest gardens continue to be popular amongst the permaculture fraternity and the sustainable food movement, they have attracted little academic research, and very little uptake by farmers, orchardists or market gardeners. As we shall see, evidence to support the claims that forest gardens achieve both low inputs and high yields is lacking, and there are good theoretical reasons why the concept is unlikely to succeed in temperate zones.

Continue reading on theculturalwilderness

What is Permaculture?

My interview for 21st Century Permaculture

Stefan Geyer, chair of the UK Permaculture Association, interviewed me recently for his show 21st Century Permaculture.
I met Stefan almost exactly 10 years ago at the European Permaculture Convergeance in Croatia, and I started teaching permaculture at Kinsale College immediately afterwards. Since I am just about to take a years’ career break (to take an MSc in Agroforestry at Bangor, Wales), and Stefan is chairing the International Permaculture Convergeance in London next week, this was a good opportunity to catch up and take stock and discuss what permaculture is and where it is going in the 21st Century.

Having had a chance to listen to it again here are a few reflections on what we discussed:

Stefan always starts his show by asking interviewees to give their definition of permaculture. This is interesting in itself- there are numerous definitions given, none of them really helping. Andy Goldring for example- who was also with us in Croatia and is current CEO of the UK PC Association, gives a very clear account of what it is: Defintion: a Design System based on natural systems for sustainability, which has Ethics and Design Principles. This is probably close to what I would have said 10 years ago- or up to just 5 years ago- but the problem is, none of this tells us what it actually is or how to do it:

The Ethics of Permaculture are generally given as “Earth Care” “People Care” and “Fair Shares”. OK- but does this tell us how to behave, or even how to garden? Does it tell us whether to use GMOs or not? Does it tell us whether local food is better than global trade? One person’s Earth Care is another’s Eco-cide. “People Care” sounds completely wooley, and in terms of how it is mainly delivered through PC courses, it is.
This blog post by a person unknown on the UK PC Association website will not enlighten you as to what it is, and in fact is the most garbled and confused piece of writing I have read about anything in a long time:

Next, reality is extremely complex and intimidating. Food/health scares (the evils of sugar, study links red meat to cancer), violence, toxic products and climate change – to name but a few – are never off the agenda. Your confidence is shaken, perhaps you have been personally affected by these stories. And there are always people behind each story. Is caring for these people, caring for ‘them’, possible?

Say what? Apart from learning that Blair and Bush are “not the men for the job” it reads more like someone’s untrammelled flow of consciousness. What can climate change mean for People Care- build windmills and cut back, even as a billion or two People do not yet have access to electricity? Or take the “Ecomodernist” approach of pushing towards a High Energy Planet with advanced nuclear reactors? Permaculture cannot in itself tell us which is the best way to care for either people or planet- yet there are strong but hidden assumptions that this could not involve nuclear power or fracking for natural gas.

At the forthcoming Convergeance Looby Macnamara is giving a workshop on “Personal Permaculture”. She is also the author of the main text on the subject, “People and Permaculture”. Drawing on Deep Ecology aswell as Ken Wilbur’s “Integral” approach, along with many other strands of personal self-help and psychology, this work again tells us nothing specific: zero data or analysis on the real world of concrete choices, trade-offs and paradoxes, while she occasionally sails dangerously close to the rocky shores of woo:

In the 20 years since Rod Everett has been practising and teaching permaculture he has only visited the doctor a few times, mainly to get a diagnosis of symptoms. Homeopathy, herbs , pressure points and specific exercises have helped to balance his body. He believes everyone can unlock their potential for healing. We can enable ourselves as healers by knowing the resources we have internally available to us, and exploring the gift of healing.

(P71)
If you are looking for an example of Bad permaculture, there you go, right there. This is outright quackery being advocated here- how is that People Care in any rational sense? Homeopathy and medicine-by-anecdote is very harmful to people. If I were asked to write a People Care book I would have to start with critical thinking and how to search for evidence: the crucial first step to make a better world has to be better information and better training in how to interpret such information. Alas, I see no evidence that Permaculture can deliver this.

Similarly, the Permaculture Principles- which exist in different forms- might be a useful thinking tool for a beginner designer- “Let each element in the design have more than one function” is useful, but not specific to Permaculture- all good functional design would include multi-functional elements. For the most part, the PC Principles are just vague aphorisms, and indeed Holmgren, when he re-wrote them some years ago, linked each one with a traditional proverb: “A stitch in time saves nine” “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” “Make hay while the sun shines” and so on- invoking the common sense wisdom of our fore-father’s in the homely life on the farms of yesteryear. Well, we already have the proverbs- what does permaculture add to that? Again, nothing specific- but the two of main influences on Holmgren- Steiner and Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) tell us all we need to know: Permaculture is an ideological movement rooted in the much broader anti-modernist and retro-romantic movements that have been around since the beginning of the modern era.

This is why I gave my definition of permaculture as being a political and ideological movement rather than a system of design. Yes, there is agroforestry, and that is a real thing; but agroforestry doesn’t claim to have a “whole systems approach” which by defintion means it encompasses an entirely new way of doing everything– including something as nebulous as “people care”. You can do agroforestry without claiming that all agriculture must be converted to such systems in order to save the planet, and without being anti-GMO and anti- “monoculture”- which doesnt mean what people think it means, or what they learn it means on most permaculture courses.

That it claims to be a unique “holistic” design system is anyway belied by the other frequently cited definition of permaculture- that it is “Revolution disguised as Organic Gardening.” This is closer to the truth- a regressive and ultra-conservative political movement, full of New Age woo and quackery, that pretends to be about gardening- but -note- *Organic Gardening*, not complex polycultures or forest gardens with tree crops and perennial understory’s “Designed by Nature”. Very few people have created such gardens, and Martin Crawford’s successful plantation of walnuts and sweet chestnuts in Devon is essentially a true monoculture (you cannot rotate nut trees!), the grass tightly mowed beneath to ensure that the nuts can actually be collected. Yes, his nearby forest garden is fantastically diverse, full of unusual greens and fruit, but this cannot replace broadscale grains produced in ever-increasing yields by Big Ag.
The vast majority of permaculture course graduates will not know this however, they will leave instead convinced they can replace the evils of modern agriculture with forest gardens full of Gingkos and Turkish Rocket without ever having to have compared yields. Permies dont do numbers.
And after all that, mainly they will go forth and do normal Organic gardens with rows of carrots and broccoli. This is the reality of permaculture in the real world, as practiced by thousands of design course graduates: sure, fruit and nut trees, but mainly, for the most part, just annual veg.

John Seymour would be proud- in truth, there is little to distinguish anything you will find in permaculture- including pig tractors!- from what he was writing about in the self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s. Permaculture is basically that plus a load of New Age faff and Dark Green political activism.

Undeterred by my “sharp and bitter” critiques of the movement, Stefan was keen to defend it, largely on the basis that getting out into Nature from the city is really good and anything that can help people experience this has got to be good. Ah, but that is exactly how cults work- there are thousands of ways people can get out into nature, from wildlife and hiking groups, to family fun days and camping holidays. What does permaculture have to offer that is extra? See above- the ideology- that modern life is rubbish and humans are bad and destroying the environment, and that we need an entirely new World Order, a complete system overhall, one that Permaculture can offer and that will make everything Whole and Nice and Pure again.

How many permaculture course invite people to consider that we need technology to protect ourselves from Nature? That being materially wealthy in an industrial society allows us to enjoy the natural world far more, without being at its mercy, either from being eaten by a bear or starving to death? How many even learn enough about history and ecology to understand that in most of the world, what passes for natural beauty has been almost entirely re-written by the hand of Man?

Stefan said interestingly that he had met representatives from nearly every position on my 50 Shades of Green spectrum at permaculture courses over the years. He could be right, but they would hardly be evenly spread: though regrettably I lack the data to prove it, the overwhelming majority of people in the permaculture world would sing to the same hymn sheet: anti-GMO, anti-Big Ag, anti-fracking, anti-nuclear; pro-Organic, pro-alternative medicine, and anti-capitalist; a smaller percentage but still significant would be anti-science and adopt varying degrees of New Age beliefs, Biodynamics practices, faeries, magic and astrology or whatever you are having yourself. Permaculture is a bit of a free-for-all in that sense, but since it is part of the broader Food Sovereignty movement, and increasingly political in tone, I do not think Stefan is correct to say that GMO advocates for example are represented in permaculture.

I should clarify one point that I made in the interview: I said the “overwhelming majority” of my students were anti-GMO. In fact this is an exaggeration- there was a much wider spectrum of views amongst students than that, although it would still be true to say I think that the majority of those coming to the course would start with anti- views or at least suspicions of.
One girl who came for an interview said she wanted to help solve some of the many problems in the world. “Which ones?” I asked. “Monsanto’s Terminator seeds” she shot back. I assured her that these had never been used (although it might solve other issues if they were). “They must be!” she replied.

On another occasion, after a class in which I had given some scientific references on the subject of genetic engineering, I was pressed into having a class meeting, as some of the students had issues with the way I was delivering the course. Very reluctantly, I agreed. We sat in a circle, some 20 or so of the class, and I began, “So it appears that some of you feel my classes are biased. Is that what people think?”
About 7 or 8 hands went up and one by one each and every one of them told the class that they did not think I was biased, that they found the classes stimulating and informative, that they appreciated what I was doing. Not a single one of the Dark Green students was prepared to openly criticize me to the group.

This was one of the highlights of my years teaching permaculture, and if any of those who supported me on that day are reading this now, I salute you.

The political -and philosophical- stance of permaculture is best expressed in this recent superb post by Tamar Haspel:

There’s an unbreachable divide between advocates of modern conventional agriculture and, essentially, everyone else, from the mainstream (organic, local, anti-GMO) to the less-so (biodynamics, permaculture, agroforestry). The parties are entrenched, the tone is partisan. But I think we ought to be able to get along, because all hard-core advocates of this or that food philosophy have two things in common: They’re paying attention, and they’re wrong.

I hope you enjoyed the interview, as I did, and I would like to give a big thanks to Stefan who did a great job, and especially for having the open mindedness to interview such a Permaculture Pariah!

Lobster Liberation

By chance I happened to be in Dublin on Sunday night at the Abbey Theater for the last of a series of Climate Conversations, “The Call to New Horizons”.

Bringing People Together for a New Understanding on Climate Change” – a series of conversations hosted in partnership with Christian Aid, the Environmental Pillar, Ibec, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Trócaire.

 

We missed the beginning but caught a couple of fascinating presentations, the first by field archaeologist Michael Gibbons, and the second by visual artist Dorothy Cross.

Both were only tangentially connected with climate change, though both indeed dealt with change, of both nature and culture.  Gibbons talked about  the layers of settlements in the changing landscape of the west of Ireland over millenia, and how they had both shaped and been shaped by environmental change.

Dorothy Cross explained that a lot of her work “is about trying to find the residue of life -which sadly is through death- and take that and bring it to the studio, and try to relate the bones or the skin of something that once existed to make us look at our own perilous natures.”  This she then related to climate change which she referred to as “monstrous”, a symbol of the perilous state of the whole of nature, or so she believes.

To illustrate her work she  showed us two remarkable videos from the island  of New Ireland off the coast of Papua New Guinea, about the dying practices of shark singing- yes, literally luring sharks into traps by singing- and octopus hunting.

In the first video, Cross shows a woman hunting an octopus with a spear. Barely able to swim herself, it takes her some 7-8 minutes to catch her octopus, a daily necessity for food.

The octopus hides in a hole in a rock and expands its body to resist capture; the woman waits while children swim out to her with poisonous leaves which she dives down again to poke into the hole forcing the tiny octopus to give itself up. It barely made a meal- the people there live precarious lives as there is less and less fish to catch, and as development slowly arrives on this remote island, this way of life captured on film is now almost gone.

In the second film Cross showed footage of one of the last shark singers, no longer allowed to go shark hunting himself as he was ostracized by the younger generation of fishermen who believed he had lost his magic, wiping tears from his face as he sang his mournful song for the camera.

I was still thinking about the harsh lives of the shark singers and the octopus hunters when I awoke the next morning and heard on the news the strange story of the Lobster Liberation that took place last Friday evening:

A GROUP OF animal rights activists say they ‘liberated’ nine lobsters by walking into a Dublin restaurant and pinching them from a fish tank.

The caged crustaceans were being kept in the tank in the window of Ka Shing Chinese restaurant on Wicklow Street before the gutsy rescue mission.

There were several news items covering this during the day and a couple of interviews with one of the vegan activists, who calmly and clearly stated that killing any animal is “murder” and abhorrent and unnecessary;

now I am not fond of shellfish, am allergic to shrimp, and do indeed find the idea of boiling lobsters alive somewhat abhorrent;

but I couldn’t help wondering whether that idealistic young activist from the National Animal Rights Association, should she ever encounter that octopus hunter- living at the time in a cash-less economy, with virtually no access to any of the amenities of the modern world, and relying on a diminishing stock of ever smaller octopuses to feed her family- whether she would see her also as a murderer, and whether she would consider it a valiant act of liberation to sabotage that hunt.

 

 

 

 

Big Ag and Small Farms- Why we need both

Colin Tudge has an article for last week’s Oxford Real Farming conference. Unfortunately, he provides little evidence for many of his assertions, repeats many long-debunked myths and seems intent on promoting a black-and-white world or Goodies (small farms) vs Baddies (Big Ag and GMOs) to have a go at his pet hate of “neo-liberalism”.

Tudge begins:

The sad state of Britain’s dairying has the same root cause as the billion worldwide who are undernourished, the billion who are overweight and/or diabetic or in danger of heart disease, global warming, the mass extinction of our fellow creatures: global agriculture, and indeed a global economy, that is geared not to the wellbeing of humankind and of the planet but to short-term wealth, in the simplistic belief that money per se is good and can solve all our problems no matter how it is produced or what it is used for.

To put things right we have to think deeply – in fact re-think from first principles – and act radically.

Tudge’s philosophy is firmly rooted in the back-to-the-land small- is- beautiful tradition beloved of Organic farmers, locavores and romantic pasturalists. The line-up for the Oxford Conference promises more of the same, including offerings from Schumacher College. Continue reading “Big Ag and Small Farms- Why we need both”

Permaculture and Agroecology

Fascinating post by Andrew Kniss on Redefining Agroecology:

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

The point is that agroecology has lost its origins as a science and become co-opted by the “alternative farming” movement which not surprisingly annoys Kniss:

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!“

In the comments, Karl Haro von Mogel suggests in order to reclaim agroecology as a science that embraces technology, another term should be found to encompass the political movement.

I think I know what that term might be: Permaculture. After all, in response to my critique of permaculture, some have claimed I ignore the close association with agroecology.

But while Kniss shows that agroecology is really a science that holds no ideological commitment- as a science it merely investigates the ecological interactions in the context of agriculture, with the purpose of benefiting both- permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.

Permaculture is not just agriculture ofcourse, and has a heavy focus on urban farms and gardens and small-holdings; and has spread far beyond this to embrace advocacy on everything from sustainable housing to renewable energy to Deep Ecology and airy-fairy “People Care” ; but its origins would seem to be almost identical to what has become the agroecological movement, closely associated with the Food Sovereignty movement (pdf) and the Organics movement, albeit the latter with a narrower and more clearly defined focus.

All of these movements subscribe to the idea that modern agriculture is unsustainable, largely driven by the quest for corporate profit, and heading rapidly over a cliff like demented lemmings;
and they promote their own cause as a simple no-brainer one-size-fits-all Answer to the issues of feeding the world.
They ignore the fact that industrial agriculture has been spectacularly successful in feeding modern populations, and in equal measure ignore the short-comings of the proposed alternatives, including less efficient land-use.
The biggest problem though is their rejection of technologies such as GMOs which can make farming more efficient, precisely because they are ideological movements and not science.

Can we reclaim the word agroecology as a science? Probably not, but it is worth thinking about replacing it with the word permaculture when you see it used as a movement, if only because it helps spotlight permaculture for what it really is.

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.