7th July 2010

The “New Agrarian” Alternative

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In the second of his posts, Sam Henderson describes the “New Agrarian” Renaissance….

In my first post, I laid out the gathering global food crisis that sets the stage for the GeoVation challenge “How Can Britain Feed Itself”. Everyone agrees that we need to seriously address our food and farming systems, but there is a gathering debate around the nature of the changes we need. In this post I will lay out what I will call “the New Agrarian Alternative”.

In what gets called “conventional” farming, we have applied linear, fordist, production line thinking and 19th Century chemistry, to fundamentally non-linear ecological systems. Crops become raw materials which must be produced as cheaply as possible and tailored to “value-adding” processes. So agriculture is dominated by just a few commodities, which are fed to animals on “factory farms” or split apart into the components of manufactured ‘foods’.

As a result, the “Western Diet” now uses around ten times as much energy as it produces. We all have enough calories to eat (and often too many) but we are also subject to endemic levels of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The coutryside is increasingly barren and the life and livelihoods of its villages continue to decline.

But it’s hard to give up on a way of thinking and there is a huge temptation to believe that all we need is to carry on, to do more. So the solution is to keep cows in huge indoor facilities so we can capture the methane they emit, and even produce energy from their manure, as well as further cutting costs. Or to further consolidate seed supplies so we can introduce engineered genetic traits to combat pests and diseases or to produce essential nutrients which are now missing from our simplified, industrialised diets. The fundamental logic remains; intensive, monocultural systems that rely on artificially produced inputs, global supply chains and expensive machinery, should be implemented wherever possible.

What this concept of “increased efficiency” inevitably misses is that farming is always embedded in intricately complex human and natural systems. Take the cows. You may be preventing the methane they emit from reaching the atmosphere, but you are also growing very energy intensive, input reliant cereal crops to feed them, instead of feeding them on pasture which, if managed properly, is a zero-input net carbon sink. What’s more, there is growing evidence that meat and milk from cereal-fed cows is less healthy than from pasture-fed animals. Individuals will have lost their jobs, and communities their economic vitality, as smaller farms and businesses close. And all that’s to say nothing of the diminished care and maintenance of the countryside, or the road repair bills and carbon emissions generated by all those extra lorry trips. I could go on.

The alternative advocated by, among others, the UN’s “special rapporteur on the right to food, is known as agroecology. The principle is simple. Instead of imposing linear, input-dependent processes onto nature’s inherent cyclical compexity, we need to get good at orchestrating whole ecosystems with finesse and understanding. We need to design, create and manage intricate polycultures which generate all the benefits that healthy ecosystems provide for free – stored energy, pest control, water conservation, fertility cyclings, even interest, enjoyment and beauty.

We know how to do this. The science, husbandry and technology already exist. We don’t need to invent anything. We do need to change our lives. And that is why the changes we are talking about, the alternatives we need, are agrarian. Agrarian is a word that describes whole lifestyles, economies and cultures, not just technicalities. In particular, it denotes a culture that is inextricably bound up with the land and how it is used – especially for producing food, fuel and fibre. Rather than struggling to patch-up a flawed approach to farming and land management, we need to start with an approach that works. Then we must recreate our systems of food production, distribution and marketing, our attitudes and habits, and our cultural priorities, so that they make that approach possible.

Agrarian is also a word that tends to evoke a bygone era of drudgery and hardship, which we are happy to feel we’ve escaped, and that is another good reason for using it. There is a common assumption that any alternative to industrial farming necessarily means a return to some form of feudal slavery, or at best some kind of back-to-the-land eccentricity. But there are very good reasons for saying that this is a New Agrarian alternative. It is New because it rests on things that have only become possible in the last ten or twenty years:

So it is appropriate that helping to realise the New Agrarian Alternative has been set as a GeoVation challenge. This is a Geography challenge, and it is an Information challenge. If Data is the new Oil, then this is a challenge to innovate food and farming systems that genuinely are powered by data and the exchange of information and ideas, so that they are freed of their dependence on oil.

To create an Agriculture that looks something like Agroecology, rather than relying on industrial thinking to solve the problems it has created, we need food and farming systems that are:

More complicated, and so must involve more people directly in growing, cooking and selling food, rather than operating machines, stacking shelves and driving lorries.

 There are many ways that clever uses of open geographic data can help to realise this New Agrarian Alternative. To help start the challenge off, I’ve posted five ideas on the GeoVation Challenge website, and four more have already been added!

 In my next posts I’ll be exploring those ideas and any new ones in further detail, and delving deeper into the challenge of exactly how Britain can feed itself.

Sam Henderson, Agrarian Renaissance