Here’s my own picture.
I am a farmer and that is where my world begins. What is an agriculture? I say it is a culture of cities, towns and villages, bridges, roads, canals, harbours – of trades’ people and the trades, which have been created by the specialised cultivation of fields. The industrial revolution was a revolution within agriculture – germinated by fossil fuels, so that today, nearly every culture on Earth is an agriculture. The farmer has a lot on her shoulders, because the greatest towering city, and all its goings-on, is utterly dependant on her crops – although in my Utopian picture, trades and pleasures of every kind bear their own egalitarian apportionment of the weight, so that the labours of fields gain new springs to their steps.
Farms disrupt natural systems. The more husbandries imitate and integrate with natural systems, so the less they disrupt – but still they will disrupt to some degree. Good husbandry reflects our ordered minds more than the complexities of nature. Nevertheless, it imitates, as best it can, the cyclic behaviours of organisms. The highest crop yield will be achieved by the closest integration. “You never enjoy the world aright, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars”, wrote Thomas Traherne in the Seventeenth Century. To which the farmer pragmatically adds – and shod with soil fauna, shaded with green leaves, watered by clear springs and fed by lives we’ve fed in return.
I must note that true yield is output minus input – massive inputs massively reduce true yield, so that organic methods out-yield all others.
So, in attempting to do the best we can, we choose the least worst farming techniques. This is important to keep our humility and gratitude intact. It is also an important part of discussions on climate change. There have been outrageous claims of carbon sequestration (so-called negative emissions) by a variety of farming techniques, such as grasslands, or organically-managed lands – or regularly-felled woodland, or coppice. But the most these can achieve is a balance and that balance, given the flawed nature of all human practitioners is unlikely. As climate change accelerates and weather grows more unpredictable, so that balance will become still more unlikely.
Yet, we must grow food and timber. That is the dispensation – hunter-gatherers don’t need the dispensation, but we agriculturalists do. Claiming the dispensation, (for clearing natural forest) is a heavy responsibility. We should call on it to the smallest degree we can. Some organic lobby groups claim that converting a lifeless cereal prairie to organic techniques will sequester tons of carbon as soil fauna returns. It is an arrogant claim and arrogance is a problem. It is true that soil life will return – redressing a critical harm – but only to an optimum point, when the farmer can only do her best to maintain that near enough balance. Organic, biodynamic, or perma-cultural methods do a fraction of the harm that so-called industrial techniques cause, but still, they disrupt natural systems – still, they create harm. Agriculture had disrupted for thousands of years before artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides existed, but the atmospheric/terrestrial balance remained unaffected. Some ancient cultures have carelessly mined their own good soils to the point when all that would grow were a few twisted olive trees… (That’s another tale of the pillage of empire.)
We gratefully accept the linear gift of sunlight to heal the wounds in our flawed agricultural cycles. We can claim the food/timber dispensation and continue without guilt as we’ve done for several thousand years, but we cannot claim to be reversing climate change We can only claim to be doing less to cause climate change than some others.
To end our contribution to climate change we must stop burning both fossil mass and living mass (biofuels) and also leave as much as we can of Earth, untouched by agriculture. Climate has been changed by fire. We can only heal it by quenching the fire. Personal sequestration claims, presented to excuse personal fire, do real harm. An organic grower once claimed his (enclosed) carbon-rich soils pardoned his twice-annual holiday flights. Pshaw! Such self-help nonsense can be found in popular, monk-pardoner carbon footprint calculators. It was also delusively applied to the convenient projections of the Paris Accord.
The dispensation for farming is the growing of food. There is no dispensation for fire. Energy opulent ways of life will destroy themselves. Even an imagined and perfectly balanced farming system with a thriving soil fauna will do nothing in itself to mitigate climate change. It will have minimised its agricultural disruption as a contribution to climate change, but it cannot go further – towards negative emissions. We must remove the cause – we must end the burning – for cultivation, processing, transport, electricity generation and heat.
If you are a grower or woodsman, would you be happy to shoulder those so-called negative emissions, which are the foundation of the Paris Agreement? That’s what’s expected of us – are you confident enough to accept them, when considering the happiness of your children?
Perhaps you boast the sequestration power of extensive grasslands? Are you sure? Who told you so? Was it a lobby group for pasture-fed beef, or an organic, consumer lifestyle magazine?
Farmers, growers and lumberjacks are supposed to recognise bullshit when they see it. The bullshit is everywhere – from green sources too. This is urgent. There is very little time.
The catalyst of climate change could ferment a new agricultural revolution as we leave those millions of years of sequestered photosynthesis to lie quietly in their strata. Negative emissions? – there they are. Leave them to sleep. Instead, we can re-learn our parts in nature – a curious, inspiring, daunting, sobering, intoxicating, fearful, delightful, difficult, liberating and hopefully possible journey. Perhaps rage at what we’ve done, combined with humility at what we must do, may propel our first and diffident steps. Those first steps are not into the Garden. We remain outside in the Fall. Our steps imprint.
Only our hunter/gatherer cousins can walk lightly enough to stay in that original home. All great religions and philosophies narrate stories of the Fall and evolve codes to manage the journey – because, it seems, we are never properly settled. Agriculture is never quite at home.
Although our great resettlement can only come about by a mass personal change of all we personages, nevertheless we are social beings and need a vision of the greater moral of how and why we change. It is useful to have Utopia as a measure. Of course, in turn, Utopia must have nature as its measure. The flaw in Utopia is myself. What’s more – Utopia is not the Garden – It is the best of all settlements of the Fall. As we head towards the Utopian (unattainable) landfall, natural truths will be revealed by our natural mistakes – without the mistakes, we don’t find the truths, or the new methods. In that respect, I can consider my naturally-flawed nature to be useful. We learn because of our flaws.
Humility is also useful. “Ne never had the apple – the apple taken been – ne never would our lady – have been heaven’s queen – so blessed be the time – the apple taken was – therefor may we sing – Deo gracias”, people sang as they danced in the Fourteenth Century. Yes. People danced to religious songs then. They were called carols… Of course, we could compose a dancing song for many aspects of the Fall – of passages from the ease of hunter/gathering to the labours of fields. We yearn for the ease of the Garden. Since that cannot be, we do our best to find a working happiness.
Natural truth will partially escape both myself and my Agricultural Utopia – that’s why scientific hypotheses are always wrong – overturned by new hypotheses. Today’s accepted and peer-reviewed hypotheses will also be wrong. They will have emerged through cracks in our perception that allow the new light in. They remain useful and they remain flawed. Deeper commons – inherited moral truths are unchanged from pre-history. The rule of return is one. We cannot take from soil which feeds us without feeding it in return. Deeper, both inherited and bequeathed commons contain contracts with nature as well as social contracts.
That’s why as a farmer I can take the sequestration claims of this or that research paper with a pinch of salt. I am outside the Garden. I am in Agriculture and its commons and I struggle to maintain something like a balance. I know it daily. I see it in the deepening or paling green of my crops – the colours reveal the intensity – the rise and fall of the flow of life. They often reveal the flaws in my husbandry.
There is no perfect agriculture.
No agriculture – no food, or timber system can achieve “negative emissions”.
To pull back from catastrophic climate change we must remove the cause – we must remove fire from our culture. The linear gift of sunlight heals some cracks in agricultural cycles, but it can do no more – the flaws are intrinsic to practitioners – to me.
We love fires. We must quench them. It’s a very tall order, but nevertheless, here ends the industrial revolution. Machines replaced people. Now people can replace machines. That looks arduous, but it also looks liberating. Growers can take it to their hearts.
Authors note – I can find no peer reviewed research to consolidate my claim that these (peer reviewed) hypotheses are false –
First, that with unchanged practises, we can harvest a crop (none land-use change), burn it, return nothing to the soil, and yet still receive the same yield and photosynthetic power from subsequent harvests – that is from arable crops and from woodland destined for biofuels. Yet that hypothesis is the foundation of the Paris Accord. The author is a farmer and can say that all farmers presented with that same hypothesis would know it to be nonsense. Farmers test the hypothesis season by season. If we return nothing to a harvested field but gas and ashes, the subsequent harvest will prove smaller. It is plain that its photosynthetic power will also diminish. Biomass of soil fauna (sequestration) will similarly shrink. Energy from sunlight – sugars and then starch is plainly insufficient to compensate. I propose that we should regard solar energy as a part of an undisturbed system in balance – create dis-balance and expect consequence. Life has expanded from a small beginning only to its optimum point.
Second – Other peer reviewed papers calculate regenerated soil carbon on a continuous upward curve, if organic, or agroecological techniques are well-applied – as though the curve can eventually reach so called, negative emissions. As an organic farmer of over forty years’ experience, I can say that this is not the case. Optimum balances will be reached and then with the best husbandry, can be maintained. That “best husbandry” is critical – human weakness, bad weather and so on will intervene. A near-enough balance is our best hope.
Featured image: Garden of Eden, by Izaak Van Oosten