Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dao of Agriculture

My wife recently saw a movie that had her all in a flurry about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), it's title is "Genetic Roulette" and it purports to show how dangerous genetically modified food is to eat.  It started a very heated argument between the two of us.  Since then I've been spending a lot of time thinking on the subject and thought I'd share my ideas with my readers.

Before I get too involved in all of this, let me state clearly what I think about GMOs.   Like in most things, I always stand to be corrected if I see some evidence that supports changing my opinion.  Having said that, I do not like GMOs, because I think that they are destructive to family farms and the environment.  As I see it, there are currently two competing models of agriculture fighting for control of the food supply.

Masanobu Fukuoka
 On one hand there are what I would call "Daoist" models that try to work with nature and mimic the systems were in play before human beings came on the scene.  The great guru of this approach was Masanobu Fukuoka.   He was trained as an agronomist but suffered a physical and mental collapse after the end of WWII.  This resolved itself in an insight that people blind themselves to what is going on around them by thinking that they know more than they actually do.  After wandering around Japan like a crazy person telling people that they didn't know anything, it occurred to him that he should put this insight into practice and use it to work a farm that he had inherited from his father.  He set out to let the plants and trees on his farm to "just be" and see what happened.  The results were disastrous, as the carefully pruned, mulched and fertilized orange trees were destroyed by insect pests.

He didn't give up, however.  Instead, he realized that farming with nature is not the same thing as being a passive observer.  So he carefully observed natural processes at work in nature and developed agricultural techniques that mimicked them.  For example, he realized that the process of tilling the soil to plant seeds also made conditions ideal for weeds too.  After experimentation, he found out that all a seed needs to germinate is a small coating of clay that mimics the effect of being buried in the soil.  So he learned how to create little seed envelopes that covered each seed.  Once he had these, he found he could simply broadcast the clay pellets onto last year's stubble and get consistent germination---but only of the crop he was planting, not the weeds.

Joel Salatin
This type of farming is not a specific technique, but rather a kungfu, which means the example of Fukuoka can inspire similar attitudes in others but cannot be copied and moved all over the world.

One North American who has used a similar attitude to create a very different system is Joel Salatin, who operates Polyface Farm.  His system is not based on fruit and rice, like Fukuoka's, but instead works around livestock production, based on trying to recreate the plant and animal relationships in a prairie.  To simplify, he carefully monitors his pastures to ensure that his cows graze the grass only enough to stimulate new, tender, nutritious growth but not long enough to harm the plants and select for tougher, less valuable types of grass.  When this point is reached, he moves the cows onto another part of the farm----which mimics the way wild grazers constantly migrate to better pasture.  After the cows have left, Salatin then moves in mobile chicken coups that bring in his flock of chickens.  These birds eat the maggots in the cow patties left in the field but in the process also spread the manure evenly so no part of the pasture suffers from being smothered.  This mimics the actions of the birds----like prairie chickens---who used to follow the herds of bison across the great plains.  At this point, it is necessary to monitor the grass so it doesn't start to toughen up or "waste" energy on seed production before the cows are brought back into the field.

Using this principle of "working with nature" or, what I would call, "understanding the dao of the farm", both Salatin and Fukuoka were able to create farms that were more productive than their neighbours while using a fraction of the effort and outside agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, etc.)  At the same time, they also found that they were increasing the value of the soil.  In Salatin's case, he has transformed a farm with the worst soil in the county to one of the best.

Norman Borlaug
In contrast to this "Daoist farming", there is another, dominant type of farming---usually identified as the "Green Revolution", but which I would suggest is better described as "industrial farming".  It is usually associated with the American agronomist Norman Borlaug.  But I would argue that it owes just as much to industrialist thinkers like Henry Ford.

The important things to understand about industrial farming is that it has two key elements:  dependence on fossil fuels, and, integration into a global industrial machine.   And because of those two underlying issues, it invariably follows the dictates of international capitalism.

Fritz Haber
Modern industrial agriculture is based on the assumption that it is possible to cheaply purchase various fertilizers that are energy intensive to create and transport.  Probably the most energy intensive of these is so-called "fixed nitrogen" which is created from nitrogen in the atmosphere.  Traditionally, farms used to be limited to the amount of nitrogen that could be recycled through things like manures or fixed by plants such as legumes.  But during the First World War a system for artificially fixing nitrogen was created by an chemist by the name of Fritz Haber.  It uses a great deal of energy, because it is difficult to get nitrogen gas to bond with the other elements that make it useful for plants.

Green Revolution agriculture not only needs to bring intrinsically expensive inputs, like artificially-created fixed nitrogen, but it also has has to create international markets to ship crops and products all over the world.  For example, another constituent of artificial fertilizer, potash, is only available to be mined in a very few places in the world.  This means that an international potash trade needs to be created that will allow it to be shipped where it is needed.

Once we have these artificial inputs in hand, it became apparent that traditional varieties of crops couldn't maximize the potential from these inputs.  That is because those breeds had been developed in an environment where these types of nutrients were not plentiful.  This meant that once you start using the artificial fertilizer, you also eventually stop saving seeds and start buying them from international corporations.

And once you start purchasing these things from international corporations---like Canada's Potash Corp. and the USA's Monsanto---the farmer no longer can get away with selling his harvest to his neighbours.  He needs hard currency and the best way to get that is to sell on the international market. And because there are inevitable fluctuations between the price he gets paid and fertilizer costs, it is inevitable that the farmer needs to go to a bank to borrow money to tide him over through hard times.
Once they get into the clutches of a bank, many farmers almost inevitably find themselves caught up in a debt spiral that ends up with them losing the land and being bought out by a neighbour.

The same process has occurred in India, Missouri and Ontario.  It happened to my family farm---which had been owned by my ancestors since 1811.  This is why small-scale, mixed family farms are becoming a rare thing.  It is why when I ride the train to St. Louis to visit my wife Illinois appears to be one giant corn field.

So what's the problem?

The issue for me is that we are running out of cheap energy as we enter into Peak Oil .  Measured in terms of output per input, industrial agriculture is grotesquely inefficient.  It isn't that far-fetched to say that modern people eat oil.  In fact, the only way in which industrial agriculture is "efficient" is in terms of output per man-hour of work.  In terms of soil conservation, environmental sustainability and output per input, it is the worst, least efficient system.  As the price of oil continues to ratchet up, this is going to get worse and worse.  This will put more and more stress on farmers and consumers until eventually our farms start to fail catastrophically.  My understanding is that this is already happening, as I have been told that the largest fraction of income for farms in Ontario comes from the off-farm job that farmers and their spouses use to subsidize their operation.  I have also been told that the only farmers who are making money are small-scale producers, predominately organic farms.  (I.e., the guys who are following some approximation of the Daoist system mentioned above.)

A cutworm and the damage it did.
As I see it, GMOs are sort of a "last gasp" technology which are attempting to prop-up the unsustainable industrial agricultural system.  They do not benefit family farms, which have other mechanisms for dealing with the issues that GMOs address.  To cite one example, a specific type of gene has been inserted into GMO corn that renders it resistant to various pests, including cutworm.  On our farm cutworm was controlled through crop rotation and by cultivation.  In mono-cultured areas---like that giant corn field called Illinois---the fields are not cultivated but instead follow "no-till" systems because it is the only way farmers can cultivate such huge fields with giant machines without suffering from severe erosion.  As well, because the only thing being grown is corn, there are no crops that can be rotated with the corn to starve out the pests.  (In our case, we used to grown mixed wheat and mixed oats, which we added to the pig feed.)

It turns out, however, that there seems to be evidence that GMO resistant cutworms are now emerging through natural selection.  If this is true, and I cannot see why it won't eventually happen even if these reports turn out to be false, then industrial farmers will find themselves forced to find some other "magic bullet" to protect themselves from the effects of creating a system of farming that goes against every rule that Mother Nature has created for making a strong eco-system.

The important thing to realize about industrial agriculture is that once it has been created it is damned difficult to switch back to something that is closer to Daoist agriculture.  The old infrastructure of barns, houses, fence rows, the small-sized equipment, etc, are all gone.  Even worse, the old knowledge that informed farmers is totally gone too.   This is really important, as farmers do a lot of things simply because their father did it that way without knowing why.  To cite one example, when I was writing this blog post I mentioned the necessity of tillage to control cutworms.  I didn't know it was important until I looked things up---I thought that crop rotation was the only thing needed.  But if I was still on the land, I would still have been tilling the soil and watching the flocks of seagulls following the tractor, not knowing that they were eating the cutworms that I had unearthed with the discs or cultivators.

New farmers not only don't know a lot of the theory of how to farm, they don't even know how to do small-scale farming from a "monkey see, monkey do" perspective.  This disconnect between the past and the future is going to cause huge problems when it becomes simply too expensive to do Industrial agriculture anymore.  That's why it is so important to try and support Daoist agriculture whichever way we can.  That's why I don't support GMOs, they just allow a dying dinosaur to live a little bit longer and cause even more chaos when it eventually collapses.

Please note, though, the above critique says nothing about GMOs being unhealthy to eat.  But I've written enough already for more than one post.  I'll save that discussion for later.


It became clear to me after responding to some comments that I had not made myself nowhere clear enough about the distinction between what I am calling "Daoist Farming", "Industrial Farming" and old-fashioned "Mixed Farms".   I am not suggesting that our agricultural system needs to return to the way things were done a hundred years ago.  That would result in mass starvation, amongst other things.  But I would suggest that it will be easier to transition from old fashioned Mixed Farms to Daoist Farming than it will be to transition from Industrial Farms to Daoist Farming.  Indeed, Daoist Farming is a much more sophisticated form of Mixed Farming.  But the differences are still profound.

Another point I need to emphasize but didn't in the above post, while Daoist Farming is a type of organic agriculture, all organic agriculture is neither sustainable nor Daoist in nature.  There is a type of "big organic" agriculture right now that is dependent on inputs that simply cannot be sustainably provided.  For example, kelp is used as a feed additive in some organic dairy systems---there simply isn't enough kelp around to do this universally.   In addition, some types of big organic use expensive transportation nets, exploit cheap farm labour, etc.

There is nothing like a head-to-head competition between Industrial and Daoist agriculture:  one is huge, the other microscopic.  But I would suggest that in the long run both environmental issues and peak oil make the universal adoption of Daoist agriculture inevitable.  And the key scientific discipline guiding agriculture during the transition will not be genetic engineering but rather restoration ecology. The business model that will make big bucks for the future will not be holding patents on specific life forms, but rather in offering consulting services for farms that need to be totally changed from the ground (literally) up.  I'm not sure that any farmer will be able to afford to pay for these services, so I see a bright future for open-source farming, too.  I do not predict a sudden collapse of our agricultural system so much as a general increase in stress as farmers flail around desperately as them attempt to get out of the bind they find themselves in.  Biotec firms will offer "silver bullets", but I suggest that they will at best only work for a short period of time and at worst bring their own new set of problems.  The result will be enormous interest in new ways of raising, processing and distributing food.  The new, emerging techniques will be spread over the internet, which will speed up the transition far faster that it would have otherwise.

In the interim, I think it is good idea for anyone who can to learn how to grow a few veggies for themselves and to start shopping at the local farmer's market.  Resilience is a key survival mechanism during times of rapid change.


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog Bill. Thanks.
I'm not sure if you have read it, but the following is a thought-provoking essay by an American farmer who makes some good points. Maybe not everything he writes will be convincing, but there's bound to be a few I think.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

I just read the article. I would suggest that the author is not being totally objective. First of all, he fixates on farrowing crates. I used to raise hogs and I can tell you that these are by far the least of the horrors in a modern, high-intensity livestock barn. Have you ever been even near one? We have high-intensity turkey barns near where I live and the stink is insane a half-mile away on the road when you are driving by in a car.

I would also be a bit skeptical of the story about the turkeys drowning. Presumably wild turkeys do know enough to come out of the rain, don't you think? I would suggest to you that there is just a little bit more going on here than this guy is willing to admit. Perhaps it was the breed, perhaps the way they were being raised. No one advocating for natural farming is suggesting that there isn't a learned skill set involved.

In effect, Mr. Hurst is throwing around a lot of "straw man" arguments.

The key issue for this Hurst guy, IMHO, is that he is so embedded in the industrial agricultural system that I don't think he can see any way out of it. And I would agree, farmers like him have very effectively painted themselves into a corner.

Fukuoka fully understood this point. When he tried to transition from industrial agriculture to a Daoist form, he suffered for years with crop failures. But once he got over the "hump", he found he was out-producing his neighbours---and with a lot less work.

One other point that raises a red flag, the author writes that he is still farming the land that his father did 80 years ago. But he also says that he will be spending 6 weeks combining it. That seems an awful lot of combining for an average-sized farm of 80 years ago. I suspect he is farming his father's fields plus those of several of his neighbours---for whom industrial agriculture didn't work out quite so well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

The pig crates and turkey disaster weren't that significant to me. Many of his other points, about natural fertilizers still being used, about energy costs, pollution, giant organic farms, tillage, shortage of nitrogen, rotation of crops, etc. were far more interesting to me. Though I may not be as well-read as you on these matters.

Fukuoka certainly sounds like an interesting man and his methods sound desirable. I'm not so certain that farming that way can feed 7 billion people, however, especially without using mechanized vehicles.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

As for the points you raise, I would have to go point-bye-point with him over the various specific issues he raises. And farm systems are different based on climate, crops, etc, so it is hard to make generalizations.

I'm not a fan of big "organic" either. I simply do not see how it is any sort of improvement over industrial agriculture. Polan, whom Hurst doesn't like, makes much the same point in his book The Omnivores Dilemma.

As for feeding the world, my understanding (and experience) is that the amount of food produced per acre is not an issue. The most productive farmers tend to be small acreage peasants from places like China. The big machines don't create more food/per acre, they produce more food/per farmer. If we are entering a period of peak oil, which seems likely, then there won't be the oil to run the big machines anyway. This means that like it or not, we will have to get a lot more people on the land doing the work.

The point is that we can go back to the old bad old ways of doing things---which was very labour intensive and did do bad things like erode the soil, and which would cause mass starvation. Or, we can use modern, what I am calling "Daoist" techniques.

In a sense, Fukuoka and Salatin are really using very sophisticated systems that have almost as little in common with old fashioned farming as it does with modern industrial models. It is easy to lose this point. But I do think that the transition from old-fashioned, mixed farms to Daoist farming would be a LOT easier than from modern industrial mega farms.