Saturday, October 15, 2022

The third agrarian revolution: from production and consumption to relations

In the 19th century Swedish agriculture underwent big changes. The earlier agriculture system was founded on a high share of permanent meadows where winter feed for the livestock was harvested. The manure was spread on the arable land where food for humans were grown. During the summer (4-6 months depending on where in Sweden you were) livestock grazed the utmarker (back country) the land which now mostly is densely forested, but was much more open in those days.  With the introduction of crop rotations the production of fodder was brought into the arable land and at the same time most of the permanent meadows were plowed and converted to arable land. Through the use of leguminous plants, in particular clover, the availability of the important nitrogen increased substantially.

The population also grew, but food production increased considerably more than the population. According to the recently published Agrar revolution by professor Mats Morell, the total energy production per person and day went from 4,000 kcal in the beginning of the 19th century to more than 5,000 kcal in the end of the century and the availability of animal foods was even higher than the consumption today.

The higher yields were mostly gained through an intensification of work. People worked more and a longer time of the year. One such example is the introduction of potatoes. The potato gave a higher yield but it also prolonged the work in the fields as it was planted after the grain was sown and harvested after the grain harvest. Finally, a lot of the potatoes were further processed into brännvin (vodka) during winter. In a similar way more and better feed gave more milk, and more cheese- and buttermaking. The increase in animal production also took more time. 

The increased work was made possible by an industrial production of tools, fabrics, nails etc, which meant that the rural population could spend more time in farming and less time in reproducing what they needed in their households and for the production. In order to buy these things they also had to sell more from their farms. Oats to England, milk and butter to the cities and vodka were early important income sources. Agriculture thus developed from self- sufficiency towards the market economy. This was facilitated and encouraged by social and political changes such as enclosures and redistribution of farm land.

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In the beginning of the 20th century this development was considerably augmented by the introduction of fossil fuels which caused very radical changes in agriculture and food systems.

-Even if yields per hectare and liters of milk per cow have increase very much has the labor productivity increased much more. While the yields of grain have increased with a factor of four or five productivity per hour worked has increased hundred times or more. Fossil fuels for tractors, combines and other machinery have played a pivotal role in this.

-Already with the first coal powered steam ships, transport costs shrank enormously which increased competition in agriculture commodities. This has continued and been amplified by diesel engines, smart logistics such as containers and pallets as well as a rapidly expanding road network. The transport solutions and the competition led to a much higher degree of specialization regionally and even continentally.

-Even more important was the large scale use of nitrogen fertilizers, made by fossil fuels. They increased yield and made it possible to decouple plant and animal production. Some areas developed livestock production much bigger than they could feed while other areas became large scaler exporters of feed.  Artificial fertilizers paved the way for agriculture into a linear production model instead of a regenerative self-generating system.

These three aspects of fossil fuels – mechanization, transportation and artificial fertilizers – have together with the market resulted in profound changes of the food and agriculture systems with effects which are not always apparent. The emergence of mega-cities, the depopulation of the countryside, the deforestation of the Amazon, the abandonment of natural and semi-natural grasslands in Europe, the homogenization of diets globally and the very rapid increase of chicken consumption are just a few examples of such effects. 

In a certain sense, this has been very successful. Despite an increase of the global population 1.5 times, the production of the croplands of the world increased from 3,700 kcal per capita and day 1960 to almost 6,000 kcal sixty years later, while the acreage expanded only 10 percent. The consumption of animal products, vegetable oil and vegetables have increased tremendously at the expense of staple crops such as tubers and grain, which in turn to a larger extent have been used for animal feed or biofuel.  

In light of the fact that the increases of production all the time predates the increase in population and that the agriculture market is a surplus market, it is strange that the dominating narrative is how we shall be able to feed a growing population. If anything increased production drives increased population rather than the other way round. Even that perspective has shortcomings however, if it were the case populations should grow also in the wealthiest countries, but they don’t. The cause of both the increase of production and the growth of the population is rather the transition from self-sufficiency to a market economy that was part of the first agrarian revolution. But I will not delve more into this interesting question here and now.

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The impressive gains in production –often called the second agrarian revolution – are mainly a result of the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, increase in irrigation (also allowing multiple cropping) and a much more intensive use of agriculture land. Contrary to common belief the net primary production, the photosynthesis, in the fields has not really increased much, but we (the humans) take a much bigger share of the primary production. This has been accomplished through the extermination of weeds that compete with the crops and insects that eat them as well as the redistribution of the net energy from the roots and the straw to the grain. Another way to express the same is that agriculture doesn’t bind more carbon (energy) than the natural eco systems it has replaced; we just take more of the carbon. This efficiency, if we should call it that, apparently leads to that there will be less energy left for other life forms. Which is just another way of describing the loss of bio-diversity.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, describes in its recent report on values and valuation of nature that we can view humans’ role and relation to nature in four different ways; that we live from nature, that we live with nature, that we live in nature and that we live as nature. The four perspectives are not mutually excluding.

The food and agriculture systems have since the first agrarian revolution, and even more since the time after the second world war, been shaped of the view that we live from nature. The focus has been totally dominated by which commercial products we can extract from farming. For instance, in animal production the desired products – meat, milk, eggs – are all important while being a pig, a cow or a hen is just a support function in this production. As long as they produce they are fine. The ecological roles of animals have totally changed and through breeding and feeding they are converted to the machines as Descartes described them. Agriculture textbooks from the end of the 19th century are thus describing a farm as a factory and animals as machines.

Agriculture oriented to self-sufficiency or subsistence is oriented to the maintenance or enhancement of the resources of the household and the farm and as much as possible these resources are generated within the household, the village or the kin. The market oriented farm entrepreneur buys fuel, seeds, breeds, knowledge, labor, nutrients, weed and pest regulation etc. in the market place – even the land is bought or sold as a commodity. Industrial agriculture follows the same principles as other industries and most of its capabilities are sourced from other industries and other continents.

Through the high degree of mechanization and the ever growing scale the capital needs are huge which spells the end of family farms, something that is easily observed. In general, the central role of agriculture for society and culture is lost and even the farm sectors itself discuss it as an industry like any other. The traditional word for farmer in Swedish is bonde, which means somebody that lives in a particular place with ties to the place (I believe the word peasant has a similar original meaning). Today’s farmers like to talk about themselves as managers or entrepreneurs with no particular ties to the landscape.

Production and consumption are separated with no apparent links and the impact of what people eat spreads like a web over the whole world and deep down to the ocean floor. Farmers often complain that most people no longer know anything about the food they eat. For sure, that is true, but most farmers today also don’t produce food but agriculture commodities for the food (or other) industries. As little as consumers know where the food come from most farmers don’t know where and in which form their commodities finally are consumed. For instance, one fourth of the Swedish milk is converted into powder which is exported to many different countries (among others to West Africa where it competes with the local production).

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A transition to a fossil-free energy system will happen regardless of climate-policies because fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract. As I have shown, fossil fuels have been a determining factor in our society and in agriculture and their demise will have equally large repercussions. There are alternative energy sources but on a system’s level they are not as flexible and easily useful as fossil fuels, something that is very apparent these days with an energy cost crisis in Europe. When the alternatives should be produced without the use of fossil fuels their costs will increase as well. Energy consumption will go down in all sectors except for the energy sector where more energy will be spent on producing, storing and using energy (e.g. use of hydrogen as storage of energy entails very high losses).

Food and agriculture systems will change considerably as a result. Cost increase for artificial fertilizers will lead to more expensive food but it will also change production methods and trade. Grazing will, for instance, become more competitive compared to feed crops, crop rotations will improve with more pulses or other leguminous plants, crops and livestock will be re-integrated and nutrient flows from farms to cities must be re-circulated. Many of the current trade flows will become uncompetitive and food markers will be re-localized to a large extent.

The transition will also lead to more competition over land, water and biomass which also can be used for energy production. Meanwhile, the same resources are also needed to maintain or restore all the ecological support systems that our society and food production is dependent on.

The same market forces that have driven the increase in production, consumption and population has proven unable to create sustainable systems. That the market was not been able to supply food for all was always apparent for those millions that went to bed hungry every day, but this insight seems to spread to society at large. Already before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, globalization was in reverse. Ten years ago, calls for increased self-sufficiency and a robust food system was seen as backward and foolish in Sweden, today they are on top of the agenda.

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In farming, when innovation is discussed it is mostly about technology but the innovations we need are cultural and social. The big challenge is not to produce more food but to develop a food system built on a more humble view of the role of humans in nature. We need to see agriculture and the food we eat as the main tools we have to manage and live in nature. Ecological and social feedback needs to be strengthened at the expense of economic feedback. To get there we need to go beyond the market and emphasize and develop the relations between us and nature, between us and the soil, between us and the farm animals and between the humans in the food chain. Both production and consumption need to be re-grounded in the landscape and farm entrepreneurs should return to being peasants. That will be the third agrarian revolution.

 

The article is an English version of my honory doctorate lecture 7 October 2022 at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

What I have done apart from farming

This is the last of four posts giving an update of what is going on in my life.

Apart from running the farm, writing books and articles and giving lectures, I also do consultancy work. The one I am busy with at the moment is about animal welfare in the supermarkets’ private brands, commissioned by the Animal Welfare Sweden. One thing that strikes me with this job is that most people say that consumers want more information and that transparency is important. Supermarket chains and various certification schemes collect a wealth of information about the suppliers and the agriculture production, almost all of it digital. Nevertheless, there is very little of this information that reaches the consumers, and even less for products under the supermarkets own brands. The truth is that a competitive market doesn’t like transparency at all. Instead if information we get storytelling.

Before that, I spent a lot of time making a report (Koll på kolet) on the carbon cycle in the Swedish food and agriculture system for the Royal Swedish Agricultural Academy (of which I am also a member). It was a big and tedious work but the results were very interesting. To see the total flow is a useful tool for increased understanding the system. The report and data is available here, in Swedish only. One of the many interesting results was that the metabolic food waste, overeating, is as big as what is normally called food waste at the consumer level. Based on estimates of real consumption, calculations based on human metabolism and sewage data as well as calculations based on the weight of the population I came to the conclusion that approximately 2,600 kcal are actually eaten per capita and day. This means that food waste before-the-mouth and overeating are of the same order of magnitude, around 600 kcal per capita and day.

The report also gives a comprehensive overview of the livestock system. A little less than a quarter of all feed is composed of grain and pulses, things that in theory could be eaten also by humans (in reality quite a big proportion is second grade which the food industry rejects). 61% of all feed is consumed by cattle, 11% by pigs, 9% by chicken, 3% by sheep and goats, 2% by pets, reindeer, deer etc. and, probably surprising, 15% by horses (which are only used for leisure or sports).

According to my research feed (carbon) efficiency in pigs is higher than it is in poultry, which seemingly contradicts the often heard statement of highest feed conversion ratio in poultry. Feed conversion ratio is mostly measured in kg feed used per kg of product. But this is a misleading measure as it favors the use of highly concentrated feed. In salmon farming for instance, soy protein isolate is often used, but it takes 3 kg of soy to make 1 kg soy protein isolate. By using soy protein isolate the feed conversion ratio is reduced to a third (you can read more about feed conversion ratio here).

The report confirms the low rate of feed conversion for beef where only around 5% of the carbon ends up in the meat. Almost half of the carbon is going back to the fields in the form of manure though. In the grasslands cropped for hay and silage (approximately 40% of the Swedish acreage) there is net sequestration of carbon and in combination with the recirculation of manure it explains why soil organic matter and soil fertility increases in farms with cattle. Some of the “inefficiency” of the low feed conversion ratio of cattle is compensated for by improved soil fertility and carbon sequestration. One could say that cattle is extremely efficient in building fertility and sequestering carbon in the agriculture eco system. Nevertheless, I find the efficiency discussions rather meaningless as the concept of efficiency is loaded with value judgments and assumptions. It also reduces our domestic animals to machines with no other purpose than being efficient, so it is a bit ironic that so many animal rights activists use the (in)efficiency argument against cattle or other ruminants.

Another interesting study I made some time ago was about the possibilities and challenges for reducing the use of soy in the Swedish livestock production. The report was a working document for the Swedish Society for nature conservation and unfortunately not publicly available. There is a lot of confusion about the production and use of soy, and in particular how much soy is grown for livestock feed. Apart from a very small share of the soy that is used as soybeans to eat or for the production of tofu and other foods, the soybean is processed into three different product, soy meal that is used for animal feed, soy oil which is used for cooking oil, biodiesel and industrial use and lecithin and food ingredient/additive. In the processing approximately 80% becomes soy meal, 19% soy oil and 1% lecithin. For the economy of soy processing and soy cultivation all fractions need to be sold and the price of soy oil is much higher than for the cake. The claims that almost all soy is grown for animal feed is thus quite nonsensical.

Nevertheless, as soy barely can be grown in Sweden there are good reasons for Swedish livestock producers not to use imported soy. Notably, most (56%) of it is used in chicken and egg production. Pigs eat 13%, in beef production very little soy is used (4%) in Sweden, more is used in dairy (24%) and in particular in organic dairy production. The reason for the latter is that there are fewer alternative feedstuffs on the market and that organic producers produce a larger share of their feed, mainly because there are few other alternatives in the market. By producing a larger share of their feed they end up buying more soy as that is the product that they need the most to reach high production. There are, however, organic dairy producers that use no soy at all and there are those that feed grass only.

The abandonment of the use of soy in Swedish livestock production can’t be discussed solely as a replacement strategy where soy is replaces by rape seed meal or any other protein feed. I proposed a battery of actions including:

-        Use of the by-products from wheat ethanol which is currently exported

-        Increase the share of grass in the ration

-        Reducing poultry production, maintain or increase ruminants

-        Increased production of pulses (which is miniscule in Sweden)

-        Increased production of rape seed

-        Increased production of biofuels with a protein rich by product.

The last two points would not be feasible in a scenario with a large share of organic production as rape seed is very difficult to grow organically due to pest problems and there would not be capacity for increased biofuel production from farm land if the share of organic production is high.

Well, those are the kind of jobs I do.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

On my mind

This is the third of four posts giving an update of what’s going on in my life and mind.

From a communications perspective I ponder over how I can improve my efforts to explain why profit, competition and increased labor productivity, essential parts of capitalism, are the main factors driving increased resource use, and that economic value (not financial value) is created by the use of resources including human labor. With a constant population there can’t be economic growth without increased resource use.

Linked to that is also the need to debunk the consumerist perspective of markets, the notion that markets are “consumer-driven” and thus that the key to any change is consumer behavior. For me, it is apparent that markets and production methods are not consumer driven even if it is equally apparent that if no consumer buy a product it will cease to be produced.  The myth of that the consumer is in command is an essential part of the justification of capitalism. It portrays the market as a democratic institution which people can control by “voting with their wallets”. And, as markets are democratic the best is to let markets take care of as much as possible – so the story goes. Regardless of the fact that some people have many more dollars in their wallet than others, it gives a distorted view of how markets work. Steve Jobs said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them” and proved it with the iPhone. It is true also on a much larger scale in time and place.

The food and agriculture system, where my main area of expertise is, provides ample evidence for that production methods, competition and government policies are all much more important than consumer choice. Almost everything people eat are made from a limited number of commodities that our ancestors domesticated, an individual consumer can’t change that, she can just refuse to eat some of them. That people eat enormous quantities of chicken and almost no magpies or starlings is not the result of consumer preferences but of the fact the hens were domesticated many thousand years ago and that from the 1930s and onwards industrial processes of chicken production were developed. In addition the food industry and restaurants like chicken as it is always tender and tasteless so you can give it any taste you want. All this together has transformed chicken from luxury food to a poor man’s staple food.

Even on a mega scale in time and space it is apparent that population growth is a result of increased production rather than the other way round – something I am busy studying at the moment. This matters quite a lot as the dominating narrative in agriculture is that “we have to produce more to feed a growing population”, but in my view it is rather “the population is growing because we exploit more and more resources”. Of course it is slightly simplistic, there are underlying factors - energy and capitalism – driving both agriculture production and population.

Two other technical matters I contemplate are the net emissions from man-made landscapes and mapping the main flows in the biological carbon cycles.

Today, all emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture (or other man made landscapes) are classified as anthropogenic as opposed to natural in IPCC terminology. But also natural landscapes emit carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Wetlands, for example, emit more methane than all the anthropogenic sources together. If we drain a wet land and grow rice in it, all methane emissions from the rice production is classified as anthropogenic despite the fact that the land emitted methane also before (this could be more or less depending on the conditions). Equally, when a wet land is drained for dryland farming, the land normally will lose carbon as well as nitrous oxide. These emissions will be called anthropogenic but the reduction of methane will not be counted as a reduction in emissions. It seems to me that it would be more fair and accurate to contrast agriculture’s emissions to the emissions of the same land in its more pristine form. Does it matter? Well for the climate it doesn’t as it is not our categories of classifications that are changing the climate. But for climate policy and all the incentives and disincentives which are now developed, it can make a lot of difference.

To some extent, this is linked to the second matter, the flows of the biological carbon cycle. There are many proposals about tree planting or restoration of eco-systems as means to mitigate climate change. But people tend to look at these things in isolation and not from a system’s perspective. The total flow of carbon in the biological systems surpass the emissions from fossil fuels and the stocks in the biosphere are huge. Most of the carbon in the annual flow just circulates in the biosphere and the speed of the circulation can be very rapid, even plants themselves exhale carbon dioxide at night time.  Some of the circulation is slow, like the one tied up in tree trunks or other long lived organisms (whales and humans). But even for trees a substantial part of the carbon that is assimilated is not bound into the wood itself but is exchanged with fungi, or falling to the ground as leafs or needles, or eaten by insects. Some of the wood burns and the carbon is released rapidly. The average Swede eats 100 kg of carbon each year while the body contains some 12 kg, the stock (the body) is therefore much smaller than the flow.

But there is no good overview or flow chart of the paths that all this carbon takes.  I am convinced that such a mapping would be useful. I guess most of you have seen the graph that shows that 70% of all mammals on the planet are domestic livestock and most of the rest are humans, with only 4% wild mammals. It is of course a sad fact that we have killed or destroyed the habitat of so many wild mammals. I believe that the rest of the same research is even more interesting, but unfortunately little publicized. To realize that there is much more fish in the ocean than all mammals together and that arthropods (insects etc.) weigh more than 10 times all the cattle and that all the bacteria weigh 35 times more than all animals taken together. And that there are 200 times more fungi than humans. Plants dwarfs everything and make up some 90% of the biomass. It makes you feel a lot less important, doesn't it?

https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1711842115

This also leads to another topic – rewilding. We explore that to some extent in The hippos of Pablo Escobar. These days we continue to dig a bit deeper into the topic and realize that rewilding is not so well defined and encompass very different approaches. There are many conflicts also for rewilding and humans have to manage rewilding to a very large extent, which is a bit contradictory. Rewilding sounds like primitivism, leading us back to a pure past of foraging, but in reality most of the pundits are ecomodernists (some are just rich people seeking a playground) who put humans outside of nature instead of being nature.

Most of the topics mentioned above will be discussed in some post later on, when the ground is covered in snow....

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

On the farm

This is the second of four posts giving an update of what’s going on in my life and mind.

Our previous book, Kornas planet, the Planet of the cows, got a very good reception. It is a story about the co-evolution of man, cows landscape, culture and society. Of course, it also discuss the industrialization of cows with all the environmental and ethical issues it has led to. Central in the book is  the small herd of cows, led by the regal Bossa, that we have in our own farm, Sunnansjö.

Bossa (in front) and Bosse, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

It was actually not part of the plan to have cows. Eight years ago, my wife, Ann-Helen, and I bought this small farm, Sunnansjö, in Sweden, some 30 km east of Uppsala. I have all my life been keen on growing vegetables and lately my interest has been more into trees and perennial plants. So the main idea was to use most of the land for such crops. But a place has its own conditions, its own genius, as expressed by Wes Jacksson. Most our lands are wet and heavy, prone to floods, not suitable for neither vegetables nor fruits.

Slowly, we began adjusting our plans to reality, to the local conditions, opportunities and limitations, I had to rethink my role from grower to ecosystem manager (after all my book Garden Earth was about planetary stewardship, so that is kind of logical). The Swedish rural landscape is very productivist where the forests are dense and totally oriented to biomass production and arable land is intensively used and mostly in monoculture crops. Semi-natural grasslands have almost disappeared, and most of the ecological boundary zones between fields, meadow, wetlands and forest have also gone (even the cities have lost the zones connecting them to the surroundings. Earlier there were market gardens, firewood and cattle markets in the outskirts of the city, there were grocery markets and harbors within the perimeters of the city and there were also chicken, pigs, dairy cows, vegetable gardens. The “countryside” was thus present in the city). Those boundary zones are often the richest and most diverse landscapes. Earlier, the landscape was much more diverse, for example, forests were not dense but open and they were also pasture, a food and fuel source, as well as providing tools and much more – including fairy tales.

The real treat of our land at Sunnansjö is that is so varied. We own a long stretch of the shore of a lake, there are rich wetlands, peat bogs, meadows, old growth forests and many fields with what we call ”field islands” in Swedish, i.e. bigger rocky patches with scattered trees in the  fields. Overall, we have a lot of boundary zones between the various biomes. Our mission now on the farm is to manage and enhance all those transition zones and to create richer ecosystems and more beauty. And for that, cattle were a rather obvious choice. The diverse landscape also provides better habitat for wildlife. There doesn’t have to be any contradiction between having cattle and most wildlife. Admittedly, there are some conflicts, e.g. with predators and parasites, but in most cases they can be managed. And there are many species that thrive in the silvopastoral landscape. There are far more problems with the cultivation of vegetables and fruits and wildlife. 

The farm has some 10 hectares of arable land, of which almost 9 is used for hay cropping or grazing. We have now 5 cows and raise their offspring for eventual slaughter as calves, steers or heifers. We sell meat in boxes of 10-15 kg directly off farm. We have also restored some 10 hectares of abandoned grasslands, mainly along the lake, restoring not only grazing but also the habitat for many birds. We practice silvo-pastoralism, both by keeping a lot of trees in the grasslands and by grazing cattle in thinned forests. 5-6 months cows are grazing, the rest of the time they eat hay. No feed is bought except mineral feed and salt. The manure is collected in winter and at least half of it is used for the crops and the rest is spread on the hay fields.

Half a hectare is used for vegetables of which asparagus is the main crop and another half hectare for fruits and berries (mainly apples) and hazelnuts. The vegetables and fruits are intercropped to some extent, especially as long as the fruit trees are small.We grow as many perennial crops as possible. One reason is that we have very heavy clay soils and the cultivation and sowing in spring is difficult. Likewise, root crops and tubers are hard to harvest in autumn and they are covered with shields of clay, which makes any kind of commercial production impossible  - we still grow them for home consumption. We also have a 200 square meter permanent tunnel where we grow plants needing higher temperatures than what we normally experience, tomatoes, chili, cucumbers etc. We sell the vegetables here at the farm and at the Reko-rings in Uppsala and Enköping. The plan is to make cider of all the apples which are not first grade.

We farm organically, I always have. Within the frame of organic, I am pragmatic when it comes to farming methods. The contrast between the conditions at Sunnansjö and the farm where I lived before, Torfolk (with sandy light soils), as well as my experiences from working with or visiting farmers in most parts of the world has made me realize the importance of adapting the methods to the local conditions. Keeping the ground covered as much as possible, recycle or add organic matter, high diversity (in time and/or space) of plants and animals are still good principles in most cases.

We also have some 30 hectares of forest. Smaller parts were recently logged when we bought the property, but the larger parts are dense old-growth forest (which in Sweden means that the dominating trees are over 120 years old) that might not ever have been clear-cut (which is the totally dominant way of “managing” forests in Sweden). Parts of the forest we have opened up for grazing, i.e. thinned to get more light down to the ground. Three hectares are gradually converted to a deciduous forest where we cut all spruce and leave birches, aspen, rowan, oak, hazelnut and other deciduous trees. In addition, we planted some beech, wild cherry and plums, crab apples, ash and more hazelnut. Some parts we manage as a continuous cover forest where trees are individually selected for harvest and sale (similar to the Lübeck model). Two bigger parts are left for the moment while we ponder over their future management. One part is a stand of pine trees in a drained swamp. We might re-wet the area, as part of a governmental scheme, to restore the swamp and stop carbon emissions. The other part, some 10 hectares, might be left for free development or will be selectively cut. Time will tell.

Energy is a weak point in the farm apart from the fact that we use our own firewood and that we use as little energy as possible (total use of diesel for tractors is a few hundred liters per year, we buy considerably more for our car). Solar panels and solar water heating will be fit to a building once we finished it and today we bought an electric tricycle. It is difficult to find the right balance in replacing fossil fuels and just use less of it, or rather, it is difficult to know where the right balance is, if even such a thing exist.

As per food we have a rather high degree of self-sufficiency. Almost all potatoes, fruit and vegetables we consume we farm ourselves (the exception is the occasional green leaf or head of cauliflower in February and March and some citrus fruit). We have meat, organs and fat from the cattle as well as game (boar, deer and moose from hunters renting the hunt from us) from the forest and fish from the lake. We process meat and vegetables through freezing (mostly meat) heat preservation, salting, drying, smoking and fermenting. Dairy and grain are the two main missing components. If things get rough we might start milking a cow, I know how to make cheese and butter. Grain is simply not feasible on our land.

The main “deficiency” on the farm is the lack of a practical social dimension. We do try to develop and participate in various cooperative project in the area and we sell directly to consumers. But the farm would need more hands and people who will further develop the place with more animal species, more lines of production, a saw mill, more wood processing etc. Ultimately, younger people taking over as we grow older. Our strong side in the social arena is our participation in the public debate, our writings and our books. Perhaps we have to be satisfied with that? Some friend told me that while I am a staunch advocate of the collective and communal, in reality I am an individualist who prefer to work alone...

Friday, August 26, 2022

News from somewhere

I have not posted much on the Garden Earth blog lately. There are several reasons for that. Being more active in my home country Sweden the last ten years means that my mind often is occupied with ”Swedish” debates. Mostly they are the same as the English, American or German debates. But the arguments are made in Swedish and the examples are often Swedish. So I write many articles and blog posts in Swedish. In addition, most of my consultancy work is also in Swedish these days which means that it is a lot more work to write articles in English based on them. 

In any case, I have now prepared four posts which form an update of the last year(s). 1) The hippos of Pablo Escobar 2) The Sunnansjö farm 3) What is on my mind and 4) What I have done outside of the farm lately.

 

The hippos of Pablo Escobar.

Another reason I have written little in English is that Ann-Helen (who also is my wife and I spent January to April writing a new book: The hippos of Pablo Escobar - in Swedish. 

The red thread is the interface between man, nature and culture with a special emphasis on human use of nature and how our perspectives have shifted over centuries. The story lending the title to the book is just one of many stories in it. The hippos of the Colombian drug lord is about rich people, invasive species and the conflicts around them. There are now hundreds of them (the hippos) in the Magdalena River. Most conservationists consider them problematic and invasive in Colombia. But others argue that they should remain and might even have a positive effect on the local environment and that they can fill a similar function as previously extinct species. Many locals like them and they draw hordes of tourists. 

 

The history of nature conservation is full of examples of interventions that were not successful ecologically or socially. The expulsion of indigenous people from nature reserves and national parks was arrogant and disastrous for the people, and in most cases also for the ecology of the area, as the people have actively managed the land. Increasingly, there are also conflicts between other local rural people and nature conservation, especially foresters, farmer, fishermen – those that actually manage the landscape for the better and the worse.

Nature protection has become a profession and an academic topic. Several global or regional treaties regulate biodiversity. This is of course good and valuable. Meanwhile, we are worried about the increasing professionalization of nature conservation and its rather narrow focus on threatened species. If people in a neighborhood protest against that a new road or more housing will destroy a wood or a wetland or just the local farm they are mostly not listened to unless they are part of the elite. But if you manage to find a threatened species the table is turned and the burden falls on the exploiters. Perhaps the focus should be on preserving and recreating vital and diverse ecosystems rather than on threatened species, even more so as much of the preservation efforts are failing?   

Some people have the idea that we should withdraw from nature and live on....air. And if we can’t do it on earth we should colonize another planet. Even if most people probably don’t agree, the narrative that we on the one hand can live without nature and on the other hand it is better for nature that we withdraw, is strong and embraced by many. But humans part of nature, we are nature. To say that we should withdraw from nature is meaningless as we would no longer be humans at all.

At the same time as the concept of Anthropocene has become mainstream it has become equally apparent that humanity is not so much in control as we thought we were. It is wrong to say that nature fights back, as it would be far too anthropomorfistic (does such a word exist? I guess you understand what I mean regardless), but certainly all those other organisms have agency one way or the other. And the Earth itself, even if she is no Goddess, is governed by processes that are outside of our control, both long term and short term. 

In the book we advocate for a re-integration of humans and the landscape and a decommodification of people and nature where the interface is governed by relationships instead of transactions. Well, those are fragments of the things we discuss in The hippos of Pablo Escobar.*

 

*The book is in Swedish – but if you happen to be a publisher in other languages drop me a line at gunnar at grolink.se....

Thursday, June 2, 2022

In defence of farming

With a rather strange twist George Monbiot, columnist at the Guardian, promotes regenerative agriculture practices and dismiss farming as harmful altogether – and worst of all is grazing livestock. Instead of farming we should produce foods in factories through fermentation or other modern technologies. But millions of farmers and pastoralists have shown over centuries that farming can be very sustainable. Meanwhile the ecological credential of lab foods are doubtful to say the least.

In the recent article The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future, George Monbiot describes some aspects of the tremendous life in soils and how a living soil can sustain fertility and itself. Lately, soil health and regenerative agriculture is on the lips of many food and agriculture professionals, even if they often mean very different things. The CEO of Syngenta, a multinational producer of herbicides and other agro-chemicals as well as seeds, including genetically modified seeds, recently went on record promoting regenerative farming as an alternative to organic farming.

Meanwhile the organic farming movement points out that it is the origin both of the term regenerative as well as most of its practices. The importance of a living soil has been promoted by organic farmers for a century now. Living soil is even the title of a book written by Lady Eve Balfour, founder of Britain’s leading organic movement Soil Association. The importance of a living soil was also for a long time common knowledge of gardeners and farmers all around the world. Science is now finally catching up after a hundred year detour along the chemical lane (with keen support of the likes of Syngenta), where soil was seen just as a substrate for the plants to grow in and nutrients was supplied by added chemicals and plants were protected from pests by a nasty mix of poisons.

So welcome to the team George! Or? In the latter part of the same article Monbiot points to many shortcomings of modern agriculture and livestock production, rightly so. I will not repeat those here as I assume my readers are quite familiar with them (if not, I have written a book about it). Monbiot’s conclusion, which he has aired for some years, is that farming is inherently bad. Either it is intensive and destroys the environment, or it is extensive and needs more land, which in his view is equally bad, if not worse:

“Campaigners, chefs and food writers rail against intensive farming and the harm it does to us and the world. But the problem is not the adjective: it’s the noun. The destruction of Earth systems is caused not by intensive farming or extensive farming, but a disastrous combination of the two.”

Monbiot’s suggestion to the “farming problem” is four-fold: First, we should take as much land as possible out of farming. New laboratory foods come to rescue, things like precision fermentation and electro-foods. Second, livestock production should be substantially reduced or even totally abandoned. Realizing that it might be a bit boring to live on lab food alone Monbiot leave some space for (veganic) horticulture and perennial grains, the third and fourth suggestion respectively (Why we should make fat and protein in laboratories while getting the carbohydrates from perennial grains is not explained, but perhaps Monbiot likes bread and pasta more than olive oil and steak?).  

The idea that farming is seen as the Fall of mankind, an epic mistake, is not new. It has been promoted by Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari and many more. It is likely that the transformation from foraging to farming had many negative implications, such as less nutritious foods and shorter lifespan. Many agro-ecosystems are simplified and poorer than most natural ecosystems. In many cases farming has not been sustainable and farmers undermined the long-term sustainability of their own production. The plow, in particular, has a very bad reputation. There are strong indications that many ancient civilizations collapsed as a result of bad farming practices.

But it may be the case that it is exactly because the civilizations where powerful and centralized that the farming systems were less sustainable. The farmers in these civilizations were under a triple pressure. First they should not only feed themselves but also big numbers of soldiers, lords, priests and others. Second they had to pay taxes or rent to the central authority and third, they had to supply the central powers with labor. This forced farmers to overexploit the resources including their land and their own bodies. It also made it impossible to invest in either the land or the farming system as a whole, condemning farmers to a rather miserable life.

Farmer selling bananas, Samoa, Photo: Gunnar Rundgren

In contrast,  many if not most, traditional and indigenous agriculture system have been sustainable and adapted themselves to changes in climate and population over centuries and even millennia. The farming households produced for their own needs and the local market and the cycle of nutrients was self-contained within the system; production and consumption were more or less the same. Many of the rice growing cultures in Asia have remained productive for a very long time. Forest gardens, silvopastoral systems in the Mediterranean, ruminant agriculture of Western Europe, chinampas by the Aztec, Hopi farming, transhumance and many other examples show that sustainability “was so self-evident that people did not even need a word or a theory for it” as expressed by environmental historian Joachim Radkau in Nature and Power. Still today, there are many farmers demonstrating that it certainly is possible to farm in some kind of harmony with nature. We know quite well how to do it and a better understanding of the soil and its properties can lead to improved methods.

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Even worse than arable farming, in the view of George Monbiot, is the grazing of cattle or sheep because this requires a lot of land. He writes:

“While 1% of the world’s land is used for buildings and infrastructure, crops occupy 12% and grazing, the most extensive kind of farming, uses 28%. Only 15% of the land, by contrast, is protected for nature. Yet the meat and milk from animals that rely solely on grazing provide just 1% of the world’s protein.“

But the figures Monbiot present are dubious or simply inaccurate. To determine how much grassland there is on the planet is tricky and it is even more difficult to ascertain how much of the grassland that is actually grazed by domestic livestock. A recent article in Nature by Jinfeng Chang and colleagues estimates that there is almost 5 billion hectares of grasslands in the world, but that only 1.6 billion hectares are grazed by domestic animals – that is only 12% of the world’s land area, not even half of the area claimed by Monbiot.

The statement that only 1 % of the world’s protein comes from animals that rely solely on grazing comes from a report which also clarifies that this is not a very relevant figure. While it is true that nowadays many grazing animals also get some supplements or that in cold or dry climates they often get hay or silage part of the year, grazing still provides 55 % of the feed of all ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc.) which in turn provides more than 15% of the protein in human diets, grazing thus provides around 8% of the world’s protein, eight times the figure used by Monbiot. It is also a protein of very high quality and bio availability. The vilifying of grazing animals is also not supported by the ecological footprint calculations where grazing lands comprise just 5% of humanities ecological footprint, while croplands and forestry have much bigger ecological footprints.

It is true that only 15% of the land is protected areas, but approximately 27% of the protected areas are grasslands and many of them are grazed by domestic animals. In Sweden, where I live, almost all protected areas are in the mountains and are grazed by domestic reindeer. The semi-natural grasslands of Europe are considered very important for bio-diversity and the considerable reduction in grassland area the last seventy years is a major problem from a nature conservation perspective. Most of the grasslands used in the world and most of the sheep and cattle are not part of any industrial livestock production. A big share is managed by pastoralists and their livestock management entails a lot more than just producing meat, wool or milk. The undifferentiated attack on livestock in general and on grazing livestock in particular is therefore an assault on the livelihood and culture of between 100 and 200 million people in more than 100 countries. Pastoralists are important ecosystem managers; as a result of pastoralism “biological diversity is enhanced and ecosystem integrity and resilience is maintained”, according to IUCN. Another important role for hundreds of million oxen, horses, buffalos and camels is to carry loads, pull carts and plows and thereby helping farmers to grow more crops.

George Monbiot cites that just 4% of the world’s mammals, by weight, are wild; humans account for 36%, and livestock for the remaining 60% (interesting enough the weight of arthropods is ten times more than the weight of livestock and the weight of all the organisms in a living soil is much higher than any animals grazing on the land). Most people using these figures and probably most people hearing them, draw the conclusion that domestic livestock has squeezed out wild animals. But that is a far too simplistic assumption. For sure, there are many cases where the expansion of farming causes habitat destruction and loss of wild life. But in many cases hunting is the number one reason for reduction of populations of wild life. (There is a difference between the causes of extinction of species and the causes of reduction of populations of mammals and fish. Habitat loss caused by expansion of agriculture, forestry and other human activities is the major reason for extinction of species while hunting/fishing is the main reason for reduction in populations). Only one third of the grasslands of the world are grazed by domestic livestock and the reason there are few wild animals on the rest of the land is that they have been hunted for centuries.

In Sweden the number of wild animals have increased tremendously the last 200 years. In the mid-19th century there were just a few hundred roe deer, moose and red deer and now there are around 300,000, 240,000 and 26,000 respectively. Wild boars had been exterminated in the 17th century and now there are some 350,000. Beavers were gone by 1870 and now we have 100,000. Hunting of cranes and swans have just started again as their numbers are causing problems. Even the predators are making comeback. Meanwhile, the number of people, pigs and poultry has increased many times and the number of cattle is more or less the same. This remarkable comeback of wild life is a result of many factors, but hunting regulations is the most important one. For fisheries and whaling the role of hunting and overexploitation is perhaps even more obvious than for the land living animals.

To make general statements that grazing livestock is good or bad is pointless. The local context determines which role grazing livestock can and should play in the food and agriculture system. Grazing can be managed in a good or bad way. In general, grazing is a system of food production that requires a lot of land but the main reasons for its low productivity is that exactly that it leaves a lot of living space for other life under, on and above the soil.

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Veganic horticulture may work under specific conditions, and even more so if humanure is re-circulated to the fields. Ian Tolhurst, the farmer mentioned in the article, is well known for being a very good farmer. His veganic cropping system uses according to his own statement 400 cubic meters of wood chips annually. While it is independent of any animals it is still dependent on additional land use and out-of-farm resources. It is therefore hard to see that this system is superior from a land-use perspective than a system with crops and animals integrated. The fact that there has been no single veganic food system in the word is a clear indication that it isn’t more resource efficient than mixed systems.

Perennial grains have been promoted for decades now and they are still quite far from being competitive on a commercial scale. If George Monbiot is concerned about the land use for agriculture, he should be concerned by the fact that they yield of Kernza, the only perennial grain so far in advance stages of development, is about one quarter of the yield of wheat. Ironically, one of the arguments for Kernza is that, in addition to the small grain crop, it also produce a lot of forage. That means that the advantage of Kernza is dependent on ruminant livestock, exactly those animals that Monbiot wants to cull. There is nothing wrong with perennial crops, on the contrary they are good, but they are no silver bullet for feeding the world.

The claims of environmental benefits of bacterial protein, fermentation of fats, indoor farms and other novel tech foods are not backed by facts. The main reason is the energy, water and land nexus. In-door production of lettuce requires in the range of 2000 kWh per square meter growing area (more is required for the production of tomatoes or potatoes). Only 1.5 square meter per capita of such production would consume the total global production of electricity, which in itself shows how absurd the idea is that it could “feed the world”. While water and land are possibly “saved” at the site of production, the land and water footprint of energy production is huge. Exactly how big varies considerably between the various forms of energy and how you calculate. The “saving” of water is also questionable in many cases as advocates of tech food routinely compare the use of drinking water with rain when they tell us how much water they save. Rain falling on fields is not saved in any meaningful sense if you abandon the field or plant forest on it.

One of the promising new laboratory techniques mentioned by George Monbiot is hydrogen oxidized bacterial protein from electricity. The technology is actually known since the 1960s and has not taken off because of the prohibitive costs. In a research article it is concluded, that only the cost of energy required to produce microbial protein is higher than the price of soybeans, even if capital and other operational costs are not taken into account. The production of 1 kg of microbial biomass would require 10 kWh of electricity. On an energy basis it will require five times as much energy to produce the bacterial biomass than is contained in the product. The electricity needed “to feed the world” with this kind of product would be more than the total electricity production in the world according to my calculations. And you would still need to produce the fat, the carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins and mix them into something that you could call “food”. 

Of course, there are constantly new technologies being promoted, and once you have debunked the environmental credentials of one of them a new one is promoted with promises of sustainability. But it is wise to be skeptical. Quorn remains the only real “lab food” that has reached commercial scale and it is based on technologies known for a century by now. Judging from its hefty price it can hardly be more resource efficient to produce than beans or even tofu and meat. The health effects of tech food products are uncertain and untested. Undoubtedly they will increase even more the share of ultraprocessed foods as most lab foods products are single ingredients and not food.

Tech food ingredients can be seen as a refinement, a continuation of the conventional industrial agriculture system. To confine fungi in a vat to convert corn into Quorn is not much different than industrial chicken production (but better for the chicken). The food system is already working by converting crops and sometimes livestock into ingredients which are put together and constantly reformulated in to brand products. But in my view, this development is already a mistake and instead of continuing on this path, we need new directions for the food system, something I have elaborated in many of articles as well as in my book Global Eating Disorder.

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Considering that George Monbiot is a staunch opponent of capitalism, it is hard to understand that he can’t see that many of the ills of farming, that he rightly describes, are not a result of farming as such but of capitalism. Industrial livestock systems, giant monocultures where whole landscapes are dedicated to one crop, be it soy, corn, oil palm, tomato, wine or olives, the massive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the linear nutrient flow of the industrial food systems are all features of capitalism. Capitalism also plays an important role in deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia. In a similar way as farmers in the huge empires were forced to compromise the integrity of their farming system to supply the empire with manpower, materials, taxes and tithes, modern farms shape their production after the “market demand” (which has little to do with consumer demand). In the modern world, the pressure from the state is largely replaced with the pressures of the global market which forces farmers to constantly reduce costs and replace their circular and sustainable food systems with linear commodity production. “Capitalism, which sounds so reasonable when explained by a mainstream economist, is in ecological terms nothing but a pyramid scheme.” Words by George Monbiot in an article in the Guardian October 2021.

The factory foods that Monbiot promotes are just a final step in the total capitalist transformation of the food system and will (if they ever become commercially viable) contribute even more to this than conventional farming. The output is not food but commodity ingredients for industrial food products. The processes are standardized and technocratic requiring massive investments and high use of energy. If they will work as envisioned, they will release the food industry from the dependency of the weather, the farmers and the land, i.e. everything that is living. While Monbiot and other eco-modernists see this as something positive which will allow us to ”save nature” it is removing humanity even one step more from nature and the living and puts even more of our life under corporate control. And there is no evidence whatsoever that any nature will be saved by these new technologies.

To increase the distance between humans and the living world which is also our life support system is bound to aggravate the separation between humans and nature with devastating result for both humans and the rest of the living world. 

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A couple of years ago I participated in a panel with  Walter Willett, George Monbiot, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Julia Lernoud which can be seen here: https://www.globallandscapesforum.org/video/is-lab-grown-food-a-solution-to-the-climate-crisis/


 

 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Landskap - a model for the future?

The Swedish word landskap can mean the same as the English landscape. It was also the word for the old counties of Sweden, administrative units that go back some thousand years. In the landskap people determined the laws and took decisions in the yearly thing. We find the same suffix -skap in words like äktenskap (marriage), vänskap (friendship), gemenskap (community), grannskap (neighborhood), medborgarskap (citizenship) and vetenskap (science, what we know). It is related to the old English ship as it is used for friendship. It signifies that what we have in common.

 

Av Hermann A.M. Mucke - Eget arbete, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2217785

Land is also another word for nature. Landskap, therefore, is the nature we have together, where we live. The word express that we are part of the landscape and that the landscape is part of us. The ”us” in the landskap are the people living there, not the people owning property or mines there or a distant state claiming dominion. A landskap has certain properties and it is limited in geographic area and people are part of it. In living landscapes the divide between nature and culture is therefore meaningless.

The whole notion of landskap is in contradiction with the modern capitalist society in many, many ways. Profiteering and inequality are not only unfortunate by-products of capitalism but essential parts of it. But equally problematic, or even more so, is the rift between man and nature and between producer and consumer. They are not only separated in person but also in place, so that one person in one place commands resources in a totally different location and that one person in one place consumes stuff produced by someone else in another location. All this is mediated by a currency that makes all things interchangeable and therefore also deprived of meaning - money. In addition, the separation both in place and in context means that ecological cycles are broken. e.g. the humanure can’t be circulated back to the land from which the food came from or livestock manure is accumulating in feed importing countries while soils are mined in food exporting countries. In a rather similar way social cohesion is also broken. Of course, the even bigger cycle of carbon in the biosphere is disturbed even more through the extraction of fossil fuels, also an integral component of the capitalist market economy

Conscientious consumers try to avoid cookies made from palm oil, mobile phones with conflict minerals or t-shirts made by semi-slaves in distant countries. But in the end, the only way to be a responsible consumer in a global capitalist society is to opt out of it as much as possible. And here the concept of landskap comes in handy.

Obviously, the post-viking age of landskap was no ideal world as power structures and power cultures prevented people from drawing the full benefits. Feudal societies were also often shaped around a landscape. It is clear that things will not be all rosy as soon we organize us according to landscapes. In the end, there will probably never exist a society that has no flaws. Nevertheless, the landskap-society has a good foundation for a socially and ecologically sustainable society where there is a direct relation between man and nature and between man and fellow humans. A landscape approach to our future society provides a frame for us to be grounded, rooted or terrestrial

Some may see the promotion of localization as just one more expression of growing nationalism. But there is no reason at all to see it that way. To develop a local community is something very different than the nationalist project. While it is important to dissociate from xenophobia I believe we also need to realize that there is some value in the care for the local and close. Similarly, there are also values developed with individualism and globalization which we should honor and care for. Even markets and money may have some role to play in a localized world. The difference would be that they (again) becomes tools for accomplishments rather than radical monopolies that dictates life and death.

 

Read also: Towards a landscape diet and communal landscape management

This post is part of a series of post inspired by our forthcoming book, The hippos of Pablo Escobar.