I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.

The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.

Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.

Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.

Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.

So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.

But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.

It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress:

“planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.

Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.

The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.

So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.

And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.

I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.

So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.