Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Greening" the green movement

In order to revolutionize global agriculture and help save the planet, the green movement has to demonstrate how in the short term farming smarter will put money in your pocket.


"La tendance est au desespoir"

It takes a not inconsiderable amount of energy to filter out the bad news and find the good. Lately, faced with the seemingly relentless stream of catastrophic climate change reports, political ass-hatitude, etc, I began actively seeking out good news to, you know, curtail my drinking.

I had been following the Permaculture Research Institute's email newsletter for awhile, and when they started pushing their online permaculture design course I looked into it.

Permaculture is a term coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978.

"Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system." - Bill Mollison [Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to permaculture. Tasmania, Australia: Tagari.]

It's a tricky term to explain and needs some better branding.

In essence it is about designing systems to feed and support humans using natural processes that are self-regenerating and increase system fertility and productivity.

Farming smarter. Or S.M.A.R.T.E.R Farming - Sustainably Maximizing Agricultural Returns Through Ecological Resiliency. (I'm not so much a marketing guy...)

Modern industrial farming is very good at maximizing crop yields through the intensive application of chemical and mechanical inputs. i.e we throw a shit tonne of fertilizer and machines at a single species at a time and maximize it's yield per acre.

It works, it's allowed the world's population to explode, but it's carbon intensive and sucks fertility from the soil. As long as there's ever more land to farm, and fossil fuel in the form of fertilizer, diesel, etc, to throw at it, it "works".

But as arable land becomes scarce or impoverished, the costs of fuel and fertilizer rise, and the impacts of climate change increase, the tenuousness and fragility of stretching a few crop species to their limits become apparent.

Like a race car or professional athlete, you can achieve incredible things by pushing your capacities to the limits, but the risk of catastrophic failure or debilitating injury increase.

Minor perturbations can cause massive disruptions and almost everyone not being paid not to, agree we're in store for a few of those.

Now permaculture, and the various other names it goes under - regenerative organic agriculture [ used by Tom Newman and others, The Carbon Underground ], etc. create systems whose aim is to maximize yield and increase fertility through the intelligent design of interconnected ecological processes.

Every element in the system has many functions, and every function is supported by many elements. i.e if one part fails, other elements pick up the slack.

You maximize yield and fertility by acre by recycling all the resources available to the system - sun, water, wind, animal, vegetable and human waste streams etc, as many times as possible.

It's taking the most efficient energy and material converting processes on the planet - living systems, and arranging them to best serve our needs.

By returning sufficient organic material to the system, it builds resilience and increases yield with only the fertilization the system naturally provides.


I've fallen into the same trap I was hoping to avoid - telling people about the science instead of showing people the money.

In order for this "better" way to farm to be adopted, a number of options are open.

1) through force and coercion - people mount bloody revolutions or get their governments to enact policies that require better farming practices.

Not super likely.

2) grassroots activism and education - by spreading the good word, greenies enlist support and win over people to their cause

Generational - it's perhaps 'happening', but slowly

3) Money - Permaculture and regenerative organic farmers open their books and show the world how profitable smart farming can be.

While some of 1 may unfortunately occur, and some of 2 is to be applauded, "liked" and "shared" until our slacktivist clicking fingers are calloused and bloody, 3 - to me - is what could turn another "good idea" into reality.

If we can demonstrate, through audited financial statements showing yields per investment of time and money, that Smart Farming is better - everyone will jump on board.

If we can show small hold farmers all over the world that current industrial methods are expensive and impoverish the soil, while ecologically sound farming is cheap and produces greater yields, well then we're off to the races.

And I think this is the way forward.

As long as permaculture remains something we "should" do, or "could" do because it is "better" - it requires individuals to exert themselves to do it - either willingly, out of conviction, or reluctantly because they are coerced to do so.

But if the business case can be made - under current legislative regimes as overturning vested industrial agricultural interests will take some doing, then people will adopt these practices in droves.

It's a lot like exercise, eating healthily, tracking your budget. We can "know" they're good for us, but until we experience it for ourselves or see their positive impacts directly in others, it's just more shit we ought to do. Governments and proselytizers can encourage us, but the cheapest positive action is the one we take freely by ourselves.

So smart farmers - open your books, and show the world the "green" way forward.

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