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.”

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.

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

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


“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. Continue Reading

GMOs and me in 500 words

First published yesterday on GMO Skepti-Forum


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.