Food & Water featured

Back to the future through mixed farming

November 6, 2023

Ed. note: This piece has been lightly edited from Chris’ original post in line with our current policy of focusing on the issues instead of personalities around the future of farming,

It’s time to turn my attention to a blog cycle concerning my recent book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, which I imagine will probably occupy somewhere between ten and twenty posts working sequentially through the book, no doubt with some digressions in between. Incidentally, the book has recently been long listed for the Non-Obvious Book Awards – a pleasure and an honour that I didn’t see coming. Obviously.

Anyway, enough of all that for now – it’s time now to get on with blogging about my Saying NO book. I’ve probably said enough already about the context for it, which is set out in its introduction and in various previous posts here. Basically, it’s a critique of ecomodernism applied to the food system, making a case instead for low energy-input local agrarianism and the politics and human ecologies supporting it. So that’s kind of the touchstone, which I’ll come back to in this and later posts.

Chapter 1 of the book lays some groundwork in terms of the structure of the food and farming system, past and present. An important aspect of the present global system is overproduction, due to the structure of the wider economy. A lot of the media narrative around this focuses on livestock, but as I lay out in Chapter 1 (and also Chapter 4), the more fundamental driving force is the overproduction of arable grains (in truth, the underlying economic logic incentivizes the overproduction of everything, of whatever agricultural product each region most advantageously produces, but arable grains are key to the whole system).

Framing the present agricultural system through the concept of overproduction is important for understanding that what fundamentally drives it is not the production of enough food and fibre in order that people live well, but the pursuit of increased profit margins in order that the economic players in the food system stay in business. This guards against neo-Malthusian arguments that it’s necessary to grow more crops at higher yields on less land in future to keep people fed, while protecting wildlife, which seem to be making a comeback these days despite thorough and persistent critique. It may be necessary to grow more crops of some kinds in some places, but as things stand in the present farming system, it would be possible to have less cropland and feed people better.

In my chapter, I draw on Glenn Davis Stone’s excellent book The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World to navigate this issue. Stone looks in detail at how neo-Malthusian arguments concerning increased food production and yields underlie the industrial food paradigm of intensive mechanized arable cropping with heavy inputs of fertilizer and other agro-chemicals.

My feeling is that a lot of existing mainstream farmers are increasingly looking to turn away from this model and explore other possible ways of producing food, while others remain committed to large-scale, industrial input-intensive farming, even if they’re working hard to improve its impacts. Another approach is the ecomodernist one, not driven by farmers, which dreams of taking food production off farmland altogether via synthetic biology techniques, ostensibly for reasons of ecological benefit, but I argue (Saying NO, Chapter 5) also usually for reasons of corporate monopoly.

One of the few things I share with the ecomodernist vision is the belief that incremental change of the industrial farming paradigm isn’t going to cut it as a future ecological food strategy. But whereas the ecomodernists head off into what I consider fanciful and inappropriately depoliticised high-tech and high-energy boosterism, my preferred approach is what Stone calls ‘the third agriculture’, what I’ve called ‘agrarian localism’ or what Jim Thomas refers to as the ‘food web’ in his commentary. This food web, in Jim’s words, “can’t be summed up in one shiny totemic widget. It doesn’t fit a formulaic “stop this, go that” campaign binary (“stop eating meat, go plant-based”). Leaning into the complexities of local agroecological diverse food webs is maddeningly unsellable as a soundbite …. [it] means embracing a messy politics of relationship, nuance, context, complexity and co-learning.

I’ve long argued that part of that politics of relationship, nuance, context, complexity and co-learning in most places is likely to involve coming to terms with the preindustrial farming systems of the locality since these were usually keyed to a low-energy input ecological appreciation of place of the kind we’ll need in the future, once our present and probably temporary fossil-fuelled escape from locality has come to an end. Inevitably, this invites charges of nostalgia, romanticism and bucolic idylls that I’m wearily inured to receiving despite a lot of careful writing on my part to show how wrongheaded this is. The spatial topologies of going ‘forward’ and not ‘back’ that we apply to historical time so easily mislead.

They mislead partly because it’s not about ‘going back’, it’s about ‘going ecological’ and ‘going low energy’, using whatever sources of inspiration we can – and the local agroecosystems that existed prior to the advent of the anti-ecology of globalized and ultimately fossil fuelled commodity farming are often a pretty good source of inspiration.

Perhaps I should call them ‘indigenous’ farming systems rather than ‘preindustrial’ farming systems. I suspect that might invite less criticism, although ‘indigenous’ is a problematic term here in the UK. I mean it in a sense articulated by Tyson Yunkaporta in his book Sand Talk – “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base” (pp.41-2). Nowadays, many people throughout the world lack such memories, including me. The challenge is to create new ones, and quickly. I don’t think we should be scorning help in that task from any quarter, even the past.

But it’s only partly about the past anyway, because in many places low-energy, local agroecosystems never really went away. So it’s not so much a case of going ‘back’ as going ‘forward’, if we must put it like that, by amplifying a different suite of existing low energy agroecological approaches. Generally, these are more apparent in Global South countries where small-scale, low-energy, local agricultures still feed a lot of people, as Jim argues in his essay. But they do also exist in the rich countries.

As described in Chapter 1 of my book, in a lot of places, including here in lowland southern England, the basic structure of the pre-fossil fuelled agroecosystem involves a rotation between a grass/legume combo that’s directly edible to humans and a grass/legume combo that’s inedible to humans but edible to ruminant livestock, the livestock acting primarily as nutrient cyclers and vectors in the larger agroecosystem, but also as important sources of meat, fat, milk and fibre. I think we’ll see a lot more mixed farming of this traditional kind in the future, probably with livestock and people doing more of the work that’s presently undertaken by fossil-fuelled machinery and agrochemical factories. So it’ll be a case of back to the future with mixed farming as a key component of the food system (not everywhere, because we’re talking local context, not one size fits all solutionism … but mixed farming in its endless local variants will loom large).

On a mixed farm, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask questions like what the energy cost or the land take of the beef it produces are compared to, say, the beans it grows. The cattle and the beans are each part of a larger system, of which they’re both critical components (in northerly climes like here in the UK it gets pretty hard to meet food needs entirely locally in low energy ways without livestock on the farm, but that’s another story).

I mention this because a journalist recently asked me to give figures on the energy input of different sources of protein – bacteria, beef, salmon, beans etc. In Saying NO… I give figures for bacteria and beans (mechanized arable soybean farming in the USA – spoiler: the beans win, easily), but really I can’t give meaningful figures for beef, or milk, or indeed beans from the mixed farming systems I advocate. Partly because there’s not much data out there for such systems, but also because it’s conceptually meaningless. You can only split the world up into beef versus beans in the kind of compartmentalized industrial farming systems that I’m arguing must be superseded.

From a consumer point of view, I also question the idea of ‘sources of protein’. I doubt that protein calculations weigh heavily on most people’s minds as they ponder their options in the supermarket between beans, beef and burger buns. We all need protein in our diets, but people don’t really think about food in that way. Meat in particular is something that most people are pretty hardwired to like both physiologically and socially in the sense of it typically being a status good, almost a positional good. ‘Meat’ and ‘protein’ are not synonymous.

This is not to say that present consumption patterns in respect of meat (or anything else) can’t change. They have to change. But it is to say it’s a bit more complicated than imagining people will happily switch to, say, bacterially-based foods, even if these can be made to look and taste like meat. Putting this book together with this book, my argument in brief is that reconfiguring social status around producerism rather than consumerism (the status that accrues to producing your own food on your own mixed holding) is going to be a better long-term bet for people and nature than trying to trick consumers into thinking that mass produced high-energy bacterial food is the real deal. Obviously, that means that (almost) everybody needs access to some productive land of their own, which is a pretty tall order. But not, in my opinion, as tall as the idea that manufacturing high-energy bacterial food to feed people living high-energy lifestyles in high-energy cities is going to cut it as a long-term strategy in human ecology.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.