Tuesday, February 27, 2018

“A garden is an ideology as sure as voting or painting or writing and loving”

Book review: A new garden ethic, by Benjamin Vogt.

Nature is slowly invading our man-made landscapes and even our cities, and I find it a very interesting evolutionary process to observe. But do we have to re-create some kind of pristine wilderness in our gardens?  

I am an avid gardener and I am intrigued by the relationship between gardens and nature and the difference between how we tend gardens and how we farm. These days, it is not very controversial to claim that lawns are biologically poor and rather represent a way for modern industrial civilization to impose its ways on nature instead of bringing nature to us. In A new garden ethic Benjamin Vogt takes this a bit longer by advocating that we should build our gardens with native plants. He writes:

Image: front cover“Native plant gardens bring the places we escape to on weekends or annual vacations into every moment; they make us part of the global language again by rooting us into a community”. Vogt calls for a new ethic, quite similar to the ethics of the land of Aldo Leopold who believed that direct contact with the natural world was crucial in shaping our ability to extend our ethics beyond our own self-interest. Leopold famously wrote: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” I think Leopold wanted people to involve with the wilderness a lot more while Vogt wants to bring the wilderness to the people in the cities.

Vogt argues that “our built landscapes should be as close to 100 percent native plants as possible”. And he goes so far as to claim that we threaten values such as health, freedom and compassion by mixing plants with no evolutionary history with one another or the local fauna. He has a rather radical view on how wild a garden should be: “When I look out of my window into the garden, I don’t see myself as the instigator or even creator. In the end I hope to not even see myself at all”. It is not all clear for my why I would even make a garden under those premises.

I guess my view of gardens is shaped by the fact that I am a grower that lives in the country side in Sweden and not in a city in North America. Being a grower means that I use non-native plants all the time. Basically no other crops than black currants are native to Sweden. The surrounding forest, the lake, the wetlands etc. is quite natural so there is no shortage of interaction with nature for me. In my garden I do use some native plants, but there is little point in recreating something that exist fifty meters away. I value and cherish border zones that mix plants and life from different types of landscapes. I blur the border between garden and forest and put some non-native shrubs and plants into the forest. I mix the cultivation of my food with flowers I like etc. I keep some non-native invasive species, such as the North American wild lupines, at bay but I don’t try to exterminate them.

Of course, I can see much value in bringing in a prairie landscape into cities in the USA. Cities in Sweden also establish “natural meadows” with native plants. That is all excellent and it can contribute to increased ecological literacy. So I am with Vogt here. Meanwhile I am a quite sceptical to the claim that this will be transforming to the degree that Vogt claims.  

Further, I have some hesitation regarding the elevation of “wilderness” into something inherently much better and virtuous than the man made nature. I don’t pretend that we can do better than nature - that is not the point. Vogt writes that “It’s dangerous on any level to see ourselves as stewards [of nature]”. I certainly agree that it is dangerous, but the reality is that we have to take on that dangerous task whether we like it or not as we have already interfered in the rest of the biosphere so much that all our actions influence all the other lifeforms.  By and large, we have created new natures, new landscapes which are the foundation for human civilization. Agriculture is of course the best example. And agriculture is not at all based on native or natural plants, it is based on large-scale alterations of landscapes, ecological interactions and even species, including the movement of plants and animals across oceans.

A growing number of people realise that the way we farm and the way we manage the sea, grasslands and the forests are not sustainable. A substantial number of these people seek refuge in ideas that we should retract from nature and let it be, left in peace. Meanwhile we should produce food, fibre and energy from mysterious high-tech innovations (they will never deliver what they promise, but that another discussion). I am concerned that a glorification of wilderness and native plants combined with high-tech dreams of food production turns a much needed attention away from how we manage the man-made landscapes and the necessary stewardship involved.  

Vogt is prone to hyperbolic statements and metaphors which meaning are hard to comprehend. “We are made of exploded stars”, well sure we are, but how does it matter? But among all those eloquent words, he has a PhD in creative writing, there are also many very memorable passages. In one of those he writes that gardens may give us hope. But then he adds “I don’t want to always feel better in my garden. I don’t want to be healed. I need my pain. I need my anger. These emotions are not enemies but indicators of empathy and compassion.” 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Inefficient productivity or productive inefficiency?

New research demonstrates – again – how deceptive the concepts of productivity and efficiency are in agriculture. Huge increases in labor productivity and modest increases in land productivity are gained by a massive increase of use of external resources, while natural capital is depleted. Is that efficient?

There is a growing body of research measuring resource flows to better understand the impact of developments. It is argued that only if economic growth can become substantially decoupled from material use, waste, and emissions, it can be sustainable. By measuring total use of resources, the total social metabolism, of the economy and not just measuring one parameter, one can avoid being distracted by the fact that usage of one resource has declined, while others have increased.

A sub set of the metabolism of society is the agrarian metabolism which refers to the exchange of energy and materials between a given society and its agrarian environment. In the article The agrarian metabolism as a tool for assessing agrarian sustainability, and its application to Spanish agriculture (1960-2008) in ECOLOGY AND SOCIETY, January 2018, Gloria I. Guzman (Universidad Pablo de Olavide) and colleagues assess how the metabolism of Spanish agriculture has changed through the increased use of mechanization, irrigation, chemical fertilizers and massive use of imported animal feed, to mention the most important drivers.

We are told again and again that modern agriculture and the Green revolution are wonders of efficiency and productivity. But when one look closer into the Spanish figures they give a different picture.

The researchers studied the use of external inputs such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), carbon (C), and energy flows, as well as the “fund elements” that they sustain such as soil, biodiversity, and woodland. The results show that the growing use of external inputs has broken the equilibrium between land and biomass uses required by traditional farming and broken or made redundant internal loops of energy and nutrients. On cropland, the relative fall in unharvested biomass had a negative effect on both biodiversity and the soil, which reduced the replenishment of organic C between 1960 and 1990. A sharp increase in imports of animal feed, and corresponding increase in the use of animal manure, hardly contributed to increasing soil organic carbon between 1990 and 2008. The massive importation of N in feed and mineral fertilizers increased the surplus and the losses of N, which has a negative impact on biodiversity, water, and the atmosphere.

There is also the question of the effect of the production of imported animal feed to consider. That is not included in this research, but one can assume that the large scale export of animal feed, mainly corn and soy, from monocultures in Latin America also leads to depletion of soils there. For those not so well informed about Spanish agriculture, we are talking about a massive increase in the breeding of pigs and poultry.  

It is a prerequisite of a sustainable agriculture system that the material basis, the fund elements or the natural and social capital needed, is managed in such a way that it is reproduced and preferably improved. If the farming system leads to the erosion of top soil, depletion of water resources or biodiversity or to the decline of the appeal of farming it is undermining its own foundations. The reduced ability of the system to produce is compensated for with the increased use of inputs of different kinds. In theory, external inputs could be used to improve or replenish the fund elements, e.g. by building fertility in the soil. But the practical experiences is mostly the opposite; increasing use of external inputs and the degradation of the fund elements are often twins in real life.

The research from Spain supports that. Between 1960 and 2008, Spanish agriculture increased the use of external energy more than five times. Meanwhile human labor input decreased to one-fifth, industrial inputs increased five times and the import of biomass, mainly feed from Latin America, rose fifteen times. Despite this massive use of external inputs, the total primary production from the agricultural system increased with only 17% in the period. The total biomass ”socialized” (appropriated, taken, delivered) from the agriculture system increased in the same period with 37%, of which most of the growth was a huge increase in pork meat based on imported feed stuff. It is hard to call such a system “efficient”.

As a result of the intensification and increased importation of animal feed, many different aspects of the production system changed. Big areas of pasturelands and marginal croplands were abandoned, while the remaining lands were used more intensively. A greater share of what grows on the land is taken by humans. Earlier 50% of the biomass remained in the field and provided for soil carbon and biodiversity. This share has now fallen to 38%. This change is a result of the use of herbicides as well as plants and varieties with a higher harvest index (i.e. the share of the total biomass of the plant which is allocated to the parts we harvest, e.g. the kernels in grain). The proportion legumes in the crop rotation as well as the supply of nitrogen from biological nitrogen fixation also fell considerably. The efficiency of the use of supplied nitrogen shrank while emissions and leaching of N20, nitrate and ammonia increased by a factor between two and three.   

This research confirms that the current model of farming is not sustainable. The much promoted intensification of farming is a mistake as long as intensification means further specialisation and increased use of inputs.

There is another way to intensify; to increase all the internal linkages and energy loops in a regenerative agriculture system with integration of animals, plants, soils and grassland. And much more human energy, people, and less fossil energy.