Thursday, 25 July 2013

Why monoculture means more debt

I spend two wintry months in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 2010, based at what is now the Schumacher Center for New Economics, and playing John the Baptist for the institution that eventually emerged as the New Economics Institute.

One of the people I met there, and who came to my lecture on the future of money in the white-painted church in Stockbridge, Mass. one snowy night, was a really radical and fascinating journalist called Judith Schwartz, who has specialised in writing about new ideas in economics in the American press.

I have been reading her new book, published in the USA, which describes her journeys across America meeting people in the forefront of "unmaking the deserts, rethinking climate change, bringing back biodiversity, and restoring nutrients to our food".  It is called Cows Save the Planet and other improbable ways of restoring soil to heal the earth.

I can't recommend it highly enough, partly because it is so hopeful and partly because this is the kind of journalism I find most exciting: interviewing people who have not only seen the future, but are putting it into practice.

This is a book that is partly about the Original Sin of American agriculture - the habit of exhausting the soil and then going west to exhaust some more.  It afflicted farmers right back to Thomas Jefferson.  It depleted the forests, brought settlers into conflict with native Americans and, worst of all, it led to the Great Dust Storm and similar disasters.

Some of the latest thinking about the nutrients that are naturally present in healthy soil (but not depleted soil) are highly controversial.  They are instantly recognisable to some of the practitioners of organic farming or permaculture, but they are still a million miles from the mainstream - which is trying to boost world output using chemicals and GM foods, and the soil is still depleting.  The point of contention is whether soil is a far more complex organism than is currently understood.

I learned two things from this book that are still making me think.  One is the problem with monoculture, which is the approved model for developing countries.  This is Jay Fuhrer from the Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Dakota:

"It's been our observation that, as you tend toward a monoculture, your input costs go up and soil problems go up too.  As you move toward biodiversity, the input costs go down and symptoms go down.  A monoculture grown every year with high soil disturbance reduces the role of the soil to just holding the plant upright."

That explains a little why soil requires more and more inputs, and food production gets increasingly expensive and more difficult to carry out on the small scale that is most productive (see previous blog on this).

Judy has tried to link the crisis in economics with the crisis in the soil and she chose a quotation from 1936 to illustrate the point (G. T. Wrench, from Reconstruction by way of the Soil):

"The stark fact that appears now, and which wrote itself across the Roman empire, is that debt and taxation increase as the soil declines."


Simon said...

I was finally converted to Organic food this year for precisely this reason. For years I had seen it as just being a negative creed 'grown without pesticides' which seemed based on a certain snearing at the scientists and agriculturalists who had pronounced this stuff safe not to mention those mugs who don't realize they are poisoning themselves. No doubt you might say this is all warranted, but I couldn't see the attraction.

Then last summer I read Charles Dowding's book on organic farming, and in particular his constant refrain that fertility was about biology, not chemistry, and that you needed to think about feeding earthworms, not feeding plants.

This, together with a very interesting feature I heard on the world service about soil erosion, completely changed my perspective though 180 degrees so that I now saw organic food as entirely positive. Its not about saying 'we're too good for pesticides', its about conserving, and hopefully enriching, an extremely valuable and surprisingly scarce resource, the life of our topsoil. When you see that you realize that we could never hope to feed 10 billion people unless more of us buy organic, not less, because we are going to need all the soil fertility we can get.

Richard Gadsden said...

I don't know if you've read Kim Stanley Robinson's Red-Green-Blue Mars trilogy.

They're essentially a book-series about terraforming Mars over two centuries with a bit of plot layered over the top so there's some people to care about.

A large chunk of them is about the enormous difficulties of creating soil on Mars, and the recognition that nothing will grow in pure regolith (rock dust) however much water and fertiliser you chuck at it.

The slow processes of terraforming have just about got to thin Alpine soils by the end of two centuries, which give you some idea of how hard it is going to be to restore the soil when it's been depleted.

asquith said...

And if you're not fully booked, are you familiar with Graham Harvey? He covers very similar terrain, particularly on "The Forgiveness of Nature" and "The Carbon Fields", but all his books can be read profitably.

As an esconomic liberal, I particularly welcome the fact that he is scathing about the subsidies system.

David Boyle said...

Actually, I do know Graham Harvey - though not I'm afraid Kim Stanley Robinson. He's good isn't he!