Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Moving to https://gardenearth.substack.com

Dear Readers, I have now moved my writing to a new platform, https://gardenearth.substack.com/ . Please tune in there instead.  It will alllow readers to subscribe. The platform also have more features such as integrated pod casts. It might take me some time to get accostomed to the new platform and get all festures working. 

These Blogger pages will be kept for another half year after which I will deleted them as a measure of cloud hygiene. We should all do our best to limit our use of digital storage space as every byte needs resources.  


Monday, March 6, 2023

 The living –the boundless relation between humans and nature

In May our new book Det levande (The Living) will be published in Sweden. ”We” in this case is Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen, my partner, wife, co-farmer and co-writer and myself.

As can be gleaned from the title, the book’s theme is the relation between us and the rest of the living, nature. As the theme is an eternal point for reflection and negotiations it is probably not surprising that we don’t land in a definitive position on the bigger issue. Nevertheless, we believe we shed some light on the many aspects of humans’ interactions with the rest of the living world. We certainly have some ideas for improvements but the book is definitively not one in the 10-things you can do to save the planet/be a better person/have a happy life - genre.

We draw from our own experiences from our small farm which is located into a forested part of the country, where we try to manage land, meadow, bogs, lake and forests in a regenerative, organic, sustainable, nature-friendly (words come and go to describe how we can interact with and ”manage” nature in a way that on the one hand gives humans a nice life and respects the rest of the living. I have long lost faith in that we can find a word that encompass that without being corrupted by the market) way. In addition, we report from various experiences, such as a visit to the Sequoia National park in California, fishing salmon in the lake Vänern, palm oil plantations in Sumatra just to mention a few.

What is the unique selling point of our book is that we tie those practical experiences into historical, philosophical, spiritual and political perspectives as well as to the ecological and economic contexts. There are books that dive deep into the fascinating life of trees, eels or mushrooms; there is research about how lichens can survive in outer space; there are books about the spiritual or philosophical aspects of human nature relations and books about how we are hosts to millions of bacteria. We try to knit those many aspects together and make some sense out of it.

The term Anthropocene which has had such an appeal the last decade is double edged. On the one hand, it does point to the very big (mostly negative) impact humans have on the planet, on biodiversity, on the huge cycles of carbon, nitrogen and water and alike. It cautions us to take it easier, reduce our foot print and adjust ourselves better to nature. On the other hand, Anthropocene can also fuel the notion of how the exceptional creature Homo sapiens has powers bigger than nature, that we can shape nature in the same way as the potter shapes clay. Ecomodernists and transhumanists often talk about the Good Anthropocene, a new Golden age of humanity. In some way this is just a continuation of the sustainable development narrative that since the 1980s have fooled people that there are ways to eat the cake and grow it at the same time.

Having a farm means that we manage a piece of nature. To some extent, we shape it according to our own minds. As everyone that ever has farmed can testify, it doesn’t always work out the way you would like it to. Again and again, nature limits our reach as farmers, nature strikes back, nature doesn’t always do what we want it to do.

But has nature really agency? Well, kind of. I am not really a believer in a Gaia or Mother Earth with a purpose and a meaning or to ascribe intentions in a bigger sense to the deer eating our vegetables or the moth eating our cabbage. Having said that, it is still obvious that all the living make things happen, and that we (humans) are not as much in control as we pretend to be - or believe we are.

Despite all the bravado of the Anthropocene, we are to a large extent still at the mercy of the living and dead. Even the distinction between the living and the dead is a construct of our mind that is obsessed with categories, dichotomies etc. All life is based on the dead matter and essential elements. Plants and animals are dependent on the process by which lichens and roots extract minerals from rock.

And life has created its own conditions and changed the dead planet into a wonder of life. The story of extreme growth and the subsequent collapse of fern forests during the Carboniferous period is a tale of that other life forms also can change the planet in ways even more than humans have ever done. The modern industrial technosphere which underpins the modern world is based on the dead organic matter from this period. In light of this we are scavengers, feeding on long dead life turned into lifeless matter.

Are we also parasites sucking life out all other life on the planet? Listening to some environmentalists one can certainly get that impression. While there is some truth in it, it still leads our thoughts in the wrong direction. As William Cronon says in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness: “ if nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.” The view that the planet would be a better place without humans is in some way understandable but in most ways it is illogical, inhumane and in particular not really actionable. If we kill ourselves we will also kill nature as we know it, not only because we will not be there to experience it. Most of the nature we can see and experience is not wild. Even 12 000 years ago humans had transformed much of the planet – admittedly not in the same way as we have done the least five hundred years, but still radically. Most of the nature that people admire is shaped or at least shared by humans.

Having said that, it is obvious that humans today harm other life forms and ecosystems in a negative way. Our species is engineers of ecosystems such as termites, beaver and elephants. Of course there is a difference in scale and depth of ours manipulations and there is also this notion of “ownership” or entitlement that colors so much of human-nature interactions (something we explore at length in the book). We have no unique “right” to nature’s gifts and the fact that you “own” a piece of land, as we do, should not give you the right to exploit it. Still, to live on (and off) the land is what we do, we just have to do it in a lithe way. Sounds easy, but it isn’t.

 

The coming months, I will expand on some of the themes of the book. Probably not too frequently as spring is slowly arriving, cows are calving, we will be busy with the launch of the book and associated events, I make a study for the WWF on the use of feed in Swedish livestock farming and a building project on the farm keeps me quite busy as well.



Sunday, February 12, 2023

Can the cow and the deer co-exist?

Domestic livestock is not the major cause of loss of wild mammals.

We have all seen it, the graph showing that just 4% of the world’s mammals, by weight, are wild; humans account for 36%, and livestock for the remaining 60%.* It is certainly deplorable that there are so few wild mammals. 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 conclusion. This is demonstrated both by large-scale top-down analysis and smaller scale empirical evidence. 


To begin with crop lands occupy 1.5 billion hectares and around 1.6 billion hectares of grasslands are effectively grazed by domestic livestock. This makes up 3.1 billion hectares out of a total of 14 billion hectares. Excluding barren lands (glaciers, rough mountains) agriculture occupy “just” one third of total land area (which is of course already a lot and perhaps too much).** Land-use can affect a bigger area then it physically occupies, but clearly agriculture, whether cropping or grazing, can’t be the main reason for why there is so little wild life in the 7 billion hectares of “habitable” land which are not under agriculture management.

On a temporal scale, the decline of wild mammals often predates agriculture expansion. This is apparent in the late Pleistocene megafauna extinction taking place more than 10,000 years ago, well before agriculture and domestication of livestock. There are still heated arguments over if hunting by humans or climate change was the main cause, most likely they were combined. Some researchers have estimated that the total biomass of herbivores, approximately a billion large bodied mammals, at that time equaled current biomass of domestic animals. Regardless of the exact numbers it is apparent that the total weight of wild mammals shrank considerably by this “event”, and that mammal wild life hasn’t recovered since.

Finally, by using data for the total global primary productivity (the net photosynthesis so to say) one can see that of the total net primary production, humans and their livestock “appropriate” around 20 percent for agriculture purposes. This is of course bad enough, but it still means that there is biological space left for many more mammals and other wild life.

*

Even if cattle, wheat and corn now grow where bison previously roamed in North America, I have seen no convincing evidence that that the extermination of bison was driven by agriculture expansion, but rather by a combination of hunting, disease and indirect effects caused by the decline in Native American populations and abilities to manage the bison herds. Obviously, the enormous expansion of both croplands and ranching in North America would have collided with a bison herd of 60 million head, sooner or later. But cattle and bison can co-exist: according to a study from Utah there is more competition between cattle and jackrabbits than between cattle and bison when they share the same resources. 

The massive death of >500 million ungulates in Africa in the late 19th century i which both domestic and (mostly) wild animals were victims was caused by Rinderpest, a disease brought in by cattle from India. This could in some way be seen as caused by “agriculture” in a wider sense, even if it was more a function of humans moving animals around than agriculture as such as domestic cattle already were all over Africa.

Research in Kenya show a certain level of competition between cattle and small herbivores but not with bigger herbivores. The researchers suggest: “that interactions between livestock and wildlife are contingent on rainfall and herbivore assemblage and represent a more richly nuanced set of interactions than the longstanding assertion that cattle simply compete with (grazing) wildlife”. Studying the populations of domestic cattle and wild life in Northern Tanzania for 17 years, researchers concluded that while there was a high density of cattle and sheep and goat “several wildlife species occurred at densities similar (zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, Kirk's dik-dik) or possibly even greater (giraffe, eland, lesser kudu, Grant's gazelle, Thomson's gazelle) than in adjacent national parks in the same ecosystem.” Research from South Africa shows that there is some competition between oribi antelope and cattle. Cattle facilitate oribi grazing during the wet season because cattle foraging produced high-quality grass regrowth. Despite this, they found that “cattle foraging at high densities during the previous wet season reduced the dry season availability of oribi's preferred grass species.”

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 were 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 for farmers. Even the predators are making comeback. Meanwhile, the number of people, pigs and poultry has increased many times. The acreage of arable land peaked in 1916 and the number of cattle increased with 50% from 1866 to its peak 1936, after which it fell back to levels lower than in the 19th century. This remarkable comeback of wild life is a result of many factors but hunting regulation is the most important one.

Researchers studying the dynamics of domestic and wild herbivores in Norway conclude that total herbivore biomass decreased from 1949 to a minimum in 1969 due to decreases in livestock biomass. Increasing wild herbivore populations lead to an increase in total herbivore biomass by 2009. “Declines in livestock biomass were a modest predictor of wildlife increases, suggesting that competition with livestock has not been a major limiting factor of wild herbivore populations over the past decades.” There has been a “notable rewilding” in Norway. They conclude that “Norwegian herbivores remain mostly regulated by management”, most notably hunting.

For fisheries and whaling the role of hunting and overexploitation is even more obvious than for the land living animals.

For sure, there are many cases where the expansion of farming causes habitat destruction and loss of wild life. The 2022 global Living Planet Index shows an average 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018. A team of researchers studied the causes for threats to 23,271 species, representing all terrestrial amphibians, birds and mammals. The six major threats were agriculture, hunting and trapping, logging, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Their results show “that agriculture and logging are pervasive in the tropics and that hunting and trapping is the most geographically widespread threat to mammals and birds. Additionally, current representations of human pressure underestimate the overall pressure on biodiversity, due to the exclusion of threats such as hunting and climate change.” Exactly how agriculture threatens wild life is not made clear in the study.

The impact of farming depends a lot on the context, which environment, which species of wildlife and of livestock respectively as well as management. How we farm, trade and eat is of critical importance: “In short, the impact of food production on biodiversity arises not from a single fault, but from the nature of the system as a whole”, according to a recent report by UNEP, Chatham House and Compassion in World Farming. 

When land is cleared and plowed and converted into cropland most of the original flora and fauna will vanish from the place and a few new ones will enter. By and large, crop farming and wild life are no good mates, so there is quite a direct link between cropland expansion and reduction in wild life. There are many things farmers can do to make cropping more biodiversity friendly, but grazing animals, boars and other mammals will not be welcome in croplands as little as grasshoppers or lice are. 

For grasslands the story is quite different. If a tropical rain forest is razed to provide grazing for cattle, biodiversity and wild life till be harmed to a very large extent. But most grazing in the world takes place in lands that have either been natural grasslands or which were converted (or restored) to semi-natural grasslands since many centuries or millennia (which is the case of many of Europe’s grasslands). Grazing animals can co-exist with many other mammals and the share of primary productivity that humans and their livestock take from grasslands is much smaller than from croplands, where we take almost all. The biggest conflict is with predators even if there are many examples of how domestic livestock can co-exist with predators. 

Some make the case that domestic livestock, in particular cattle, to some extent can act as ecological replacement for now-extinct megaherbivores and that they can maintain landscapes and functions that otherwise would be lost (see for example here, here and here).

One of our cows in our silvo-pastoral lands. Photo: Gunnar Rundgren.


There are, obviously, many things farmers can do to protect and promote wildlife. But that would be the subject of another set of articles. You can find some examples here and here

For sure, the cow and the deer can easily co-exist. On our farm, there is plenty of wild-life co-existing with our small herd of five mother cows. There are deer, elk, boars, fox, voles, fox, the occassional lynx a huge number of birds including flocks of gees, cranes. In the grassland they all thrive and do little harm, in my field of vegetables, I chase them away.

 

*Interestingly, 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.

** Many quote considerably higher numbers, e.g. Our world in data. They classify almost all global grasslands as grazing area for domestic livestock, but that is simply not correct. It is only a minor part of the grasslands that are actually grazed. For a detailed analysis see the supplement of Climate warming from managed grasslands cancels the cooling effect of carbon sinks in sparsely grazed and natural grasslands by Jinfeng Chang et al (2021).


 

Friday, February 3, 2023

Food: away from the market into the civil sphere

In my last article I explained how the agriculture treadmill works. As long as there is an underlying overproduction of agriculture commodities, agriculture will never be profitable in the normal meaning of the word. One agriculture economist in Sweden claimed that, because of this, prices of agriculture commodities are mainly determined by how cheaply farmers are ready to work. This is also reflected in the mostly bad conditions for farm workers.

There are, of course, individual examples of farmers who can make a profit. As the treadmill theory points out, pioneers in adoption of new technology can often benefit for a while, but they will have to continue to be in the forefront year after year. There are also risks with being the earliest adopter, as technologies might not yet be perfected or even dysfunctional. More often it is better to stand in the second line.

Another strategy is to avoid “commodity hell” A version of this is to go for a special niche in the market. It can be a new crop or a new production concept. Many years ago our farm was the first to cultivate daikon radishes on a semi commercial scale in Sweden. We grew thousand square meters, got a bumper crop and very good prices when we shipped them to the market in Stockholm. Next year we sowed three thousand square meters. But with that we saturated the market and had to lower the price and still ended up throwing away half of the crop.

We were also very early organic farmers, starting in 1977. At that time, organic farming was seen as a promise for small farmers in less favored areas. From 1983 onwards we developed organic sales to supermarkets through a cooperative (which we managed) which had mostly small growers as members. We expanded and at the peak years (late 1990s and early 2000s) we grew vegetables on around 7 hectares. It was hard work but it was also – kind of – profitable. Over the years, more and bigger farms converted to organic. Around 20 percent of the Swedish arable land is now organically managed and organic farms have an average size bigger than conventional. Imports also started to flow (Swedish vegetable production in general has a hard time competing with imports from countries with better climate and lower labor costs) and the prices of our crops were lower in the year 2000 than in 1980, while the value of the money was halved at the same time. Gradually the farm changed focus back into more local marketing.

Daikon radishes and organic farming are both good – but neither is a recipe for commercial success. Organic farming is certainly much better than conventional but it is no savior of small farms. As a matter of fact, the high costs for certification (for which I am very much to blame as being one of the pioneers in the organic certification business...), which is nowadays an integral part of the organic market, is proportionally a much bigger burden for small farms and the bureaucracy involved in compliance procedure also discriminate against small farms. The spread and success of organic also lead to a conventionalization of organic producers with less diverse production as a result.

Research in Brazil and Italy concludes that ” there was a significant and positive correlation between the crop richness index and the share of farm sales through alternative food networks.” But the researchers also pointed out that: ”proximity to densely populated areas is a necessary precondition for the development of the short food supply chains needed to stimulate the diversification of organic agriculture.” While I am certain that there are more possibilities for those living close to cities I am not convinced that this statement holds as a general rule in the long run. It is quite possible that local rural people will participate in alternative food chains. If the distance to major market hubs is great, the pressure of competition is much lower and potential customers may not have so many alternatives. In addition, peripheral areas are much more likely to engage in the “informal economy”.

Just a week ago, I visited farms in the region och Waginger See in Bavaria, not a densely populated area after continental European standards. Most of the organic farms I visited had a diversified production oriented to the local market. The one with the most diverse production was also a community supported agriculture farm, in German called Solidarische Lantwirtschaft. This farm, Blümlhof grows all kinds of vegetables and fruits, rye and dinkelwheat and has sheep cows, donkey, pigs, bees, chicken, horses and what not. They are three families working together and have some 50 “co-farmers” as they call the members of the CSA. Those commit 160 euro per month for a year at the time. For that they can take as much as they want of the harvest, the milk, the meat, the honey and the eggs pending availability of course, following the old principle “to each according to their needs”. 

Elke and Hubert Hochreiter at Blümlhof, photo: Gunnar Rundgren

This kind of consumer-producer relations are based on cooperation and joint values and not on commodities and transactions. Food is not, should not, primarily be seen as a commodity to be bought or sold. To a large extent food is an expression of culture, solidarity and connectedness with the land. Food is also a human right. This also means that food takes the central stage in efforts to transform society. The main path towards true sustainability therefore lies in considerable changes in the market – or even more to develop distribution outside of what is normally called a market.* 

Pickling cucumbers and preparing tomatoes for drying, photo:Gunnar Rundgren

There is not one single solution, but many. Increasing self-sufficiency in food and food preparation is another important step in changing our relationship to food. Growing, preserving, preparing, cooking and eating, taking care of the leftovers and waste of our food gives us control over a bigger share of our lives and at the same time, pulls a big chunk of the real economy out of market, away from competition and from the profit and machinations of corporations as well as the – often well intended but nevertheless stifling -  meddling by governments. Growing, storing and preparing food, cooking and eating together with others is important parts of  building a community. Even from an evolutionary perspective these are essential elements of being human and cornerstones of human cultures.  

 

* I will not delve deeper into what a market is and what it is. Suffice to say that a transaction that involves money isn’t necessary a market transaction and that a market has to have a certain level of competition and choice in order to qualify as a market, in my view.  Admittedly, there is no straight-forward definition of what constitutes a market.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The agriculture treadmill eliminates both farmers and profit

Despite enormous increase in productivity, farming is in general not profitable and the strategy of international competitiveness that dominates the farm sector in many countries is doomed to lead to ever decreasing profits and ever decreasing number of farmers.

This article draws on the four number-crunching articles posted here the last month and adds some analysis, particularly economic.

The development of productivity in farming is mind-boggling. 200 years ago the time spent to harvest and thresh one ton of grain was around 30 workdays. The job is now done in five minutes with a modern combine harvester – and John Deere X9 actually can harvest up to 100 ton in one hour if conditions are optimal. Not only has work productivity increased a lot, the yield per area unit has increased as well. As demonstrated here, world agriculture output of crops, measured in tons, has increased with 268% since 1961. The population increased with 151%, i.e. the production per person increased with 43%. This has been accomplished with an increase in cropping area with “just” 20 percent. The work force increased until 2003 when it amounted to 1.06 billion people, but after that it dropped considerably and is now around 0.84 billion.

In high income countries, the agriculture work force dropped from 66 million persons 1961 to just 16 million 2020, i.e. three out of four farm jobs have disappeared, most of them being farmers. Meanwhile the output doubled, which means that value per person employed increased 700 percent. Still farming is not a very profitable venture in most countries. There are always some exceptions to this rule either as a result of a specific policy environment or as a result of some individual farmer being superior managers or business people, or just happen to be in a sweet spot at the right time.

Looking a bit closer on Sweden, my home country, we can see that the share of the GDP originating in farming has shrunk from above 6% to just 0.4% in seventy years and that the total contribution to the GDP (i.e. value added in production) has dropped considerably. Value has dropped despite the fact that total output in volume has increased, roughly by 10%. 


Looking at the situation from a farm business perspective, the overall picture shows a remarkable shift around 1990. Until then, Sweden pursued a policy of self-sufficiency through a combination of tariffs and support. That was abolished in the end of the 1980s and was followed by EU membership in 1995. That increased competition a lot and prices dropped. The situation has improved a bit but profitability is still very low as prices of inputs used have also increased. The net farm income corresponds more or less to the subsidies through the EU Common Agriculture Policy.


The development in Sweden and other high-income countries confirms the accuracy of the agricultural treadmill as observed by the American agricultural economist, Willard W. Cochrane.

The agricultural treadmill begins to spin when new technology is developed and implemented by pioneering farmers. These early adopters gain an economic advantage from the new technology, because they can produce at lower costs at unchanged selling prices. As more and more farmers use the new technology, production increases and prices fall, however. The economic advantage gained by early adopters disappears as it is offset by falling prices. This is then repeated again, again and again. The early adopters may be profitable for a while, but they have to continually innovate to remain that. The laggards park their tractors for good and the big majority of farms live on rust and rot (as we say in Swedish meaning they can’t afford to re-invest in their farms, just making ends meet a year at the time).

Ironically it is not even countered by subsidies as they lead to lower prices or higher land prices or any combination of them. For the farm sector as a whole there is actually little point in all that innovation and increase of productivity as it is the buyers and consumers that will reap the benefits and not the farmers as a collective.