If Alternative Farming worked, it would just be called “Farming”

First published on Skepteco Feb 8th 2014

by Graham Strouts

Another insightful critique of permaculture, this time from Chris Smaje, which I take the liberty of quoting from at length as Smaje summarizes the issues better than I can:

PDC {Permaculture Design Course} syndrome can involve one or more of the following symptoms:

  • a belief that no till or mulching or forest gardening or polycultures or mob-stocking or chicken tractors or perennial crops or compost teas or various other techniques must invariably be practiced in preference to any alternatives
  • a belief that whatever Bill Mollison or David Holmgren or a handful of other authors have written is above criticism;
  • likewise, a belief that the way things are done by certain famous permaculturists or on certain famous permaculture holdings must always be faithfully reproduced elsewhere
  • a belief that permaculture has cracked the problem of creating a low input – high output farming system
  • a belief, consequently, that anyone who struggles to make a living out of farming must be failing because they are not properly following the correct principles
  • a slightly superior smile at the sight of weeds, hoes, spades, tractors etc
  • a belief that a small garden crammed with edible perennial things is proof positive that permaculture can feed the world
  • a belief that controlled trials and numerical analysis are reductionist and unnecessary
  • a belief that people who question aspects of permaculture principles are simply nay-sayers who sap the movement’s joie de vivre
  • most importantly, a ready admission that permaculture is not a set of approved techniques or received dogma that must always be applied everywhere but a way of thinking, a broad set of handy design principles, before cheerfully reverting to any of the preceding affectations.

  • I’m exaggerating a little of course. And the good news is that the condition is rarely permanent – it usually fades within a few years of taking a permaculture course, faster if the sufferer takes on a farm themselves (the quickest cure recommended by physicians). Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to criticism: God knows there are plenty of things I’ve done on my holding that deserve it. And in case it seems like I’m putting myself above those who suffer from this troubling condition, let me tell you that I had a very bad case of PDC syndrome myself for a couple of years. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn from recent PDC graduates, but I do weary of the judgmental spirit that too often seems to accompany the process.

    From my perspective as a small-scale agroecologically-oriented commercial grower, I’d offer the following criticism of the package that many PDC graduates seem to emerge with:

  • a tendency to over-emphasise the role of smart design tricks and to under-emphasise the important but unglamorous basics of sound growing/farming skills
  • a tendency to be over-impressed by the media schtick of various global permaculture gurus who very rarely make a living from producing basic food commodities, and a tendency not to notice what many unsung local farmers and growers are achieving as ‘implicit permaculturists’ who simply apply good design in their practice
  • a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ and replaced by an overwhelming faith in the views of permaculture gurus as per my previous point
  • a metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present, and a conviction that the way they have done things is wrong
  • an insufficiently fine-grained understanding of agro-ecosystems

In truth, I would personally hesitate to say some of those things so baldly without having specific evidence I could point to to back them up; as with Ann Owen’s post discussed last week, Smaje does not mince his words or shy away from direct attack on his prey; nevertheless, I understand everything he is saying and can concur that this is also my experience with that special tribe of permaculture people.

Note Smaje’s accusation towards the end of his list of “a tendency to a religious mode of thinking, in which the rudiments of scientific rigour are rejected as ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ “
This seems odd since elsewhere Smaje continues to accuse me also of “irrationalist faith-based scientism”- which seems to be exactly the kind of response he is complaining of receiving himself from the permaculture world.

Just as Owen completely rolled back on her concurrence with myself and Peter Harper that “Permies dont do numbers” by asserting that “No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience” -in other words, anecdotes trump data- so Smaje seems unable to see that those he criticizes will tar him with the self-same epithet he throws at me.

Moreover, again just like Owen- and as I have argued before, like Harper before her, despite having accomplished a fine and comprehensive demolition job on the Cult of Perma, Smaje finds it completely beyond him to join the dots and denounce the movement once and for all:

I’m not going to turn my back on the movement, because I think its basic principles are sound when thoughtfully applied, because generally I like its cheerful can-do amateurism, because I usually find the way it imagines different possible ways of living invigorating, and because there are signs that it’s sharpening up its act.

Can he show us an example of the “principles” being thoughtfully applied? None is offered; but as I argued in my OP, these principles are so vague as to be essentially meaningless- you could point to pretty much anything that vaguely works- including things that would not normally find a place in the Church of Permaculture such as nuclear power stations- and say, ah, look, permaculture principles in action!

(The most obvious example would be genetic engineering- “use of biological resources”, which would also work well of course in the Organics that Smaje defends so fiercely.) The design principles mean literally nothing- they are banal platitudes along the lines of self-help “affirmations”.

The suggestion that there is some kind of “alternative” farming system that applies sensible and thoughtful practical design principles, while the “mainstream” does not, smacks of exactly the kind of “metropolitan disdain for farmers past and present” that Smaje fingers above.

How about “cheerful can-do amateurism”- but that is precisely what the problem is, is it not? Because Smaje himself seems to have done a rather good job of showing that it is really more a gormless-can’t- do-naivety.

“the way it imagines different possible ways of living invigorating”
– see above. “Imagining” that there is a simple way to overcome the problems of modern farming- indeed of the whole world- is a waste of everyone’s time at best, at worst it becomes a harmful cult that leads myriads of people astray and leads ultimately to reactionary and damaging policies. (The anti-GMO movement is based on this fanciful “imagining” just as is the anti-nuclear and anti-fracking movements.) (Hell, why cant these earnest PDC-ers just go to ag school, study science and GET REAL??)

“sharpening up its act” ? The example Smaje points to is Rafter Sass Ferguson’s work, which I have critiqued here. Again, Ferguson seems merely to repeat the same issues already critiqued by Harper et al without any real attempt to resolve them- yet still somehow manages to conclude that permaculture is actually a thing.

Smaje goes onto conclude with some salient points questioning the systems often hailed as permacultural success such as Joe Salatin:

If I could make so bold, part of the success also stems from a certain credulity among the permaculture public, who too rarely ask tough questions of different farming systems. Joel Salatin’s chicken operation is no doubt very productive, but it does rely on bought-in commercial feed, which enthusiasts tend to gloss over. Sepp Holzer has created an amazing-looking farm with some clever ideas that make people want to visit it, and that alone is worth celebrating, but I think the results are open to question on input/output grounds.

Ah yes, those tough questions… inputs and outputs…. but again, these are exactly the same kinds of tough questions asked of Smaje’s darling Organic farming by myself, Mark Lynas, Steve Savage etc, who Smaje sneeringly dismisses as “eco-panglossian” and accuses of worshiping at the Church of Scientism. When responding to more or less the same questions about lower yields for Organic systems and Nitrogen availability, Smaje goes to great lengths to fudge the issue with some hand-flapping about being land-hungry not really being important if we all become Vegan and leave the cities and become peasant farmers again because, you know, “Most of these things require more farmers per hectare: there are various ways in which human labour can substitute at least to some degree for bought in nitrogen. That’s good, right? The government is always saying that ‘creating jobs’ is a good thing…”

Someone needs to explain to Chris that a requirement for more labour to achieve the same productivity is a cost to society, not a benefit. Unless that is, you are a dreamy PCD graduate on the dole or a trust fund who thinks food will just fall into your mouth if you only imagine it so.

He also makes the rather remarkable claim that, if innovation can increase energy availability, then it can also increase actual land area. Say what?! “Maybe somebody will find a clover variety that doubles fixation rates.” Yes Chris, that is indeed an example of innovation that could increase yields. Unless it involves genetic engineering of course- then it would be an example of “eco-Panglossian Scientism” and Very Bad.

Again, on his post discussing Nitrogen availability, Smaje is doing a very good job of explaining why Organics is seriously problematic. The real problem with it though is simply that it is hand-tied with ideology: the original idea of Organics comes from Steiner’s Biodynamics fairy-astrology woo, and Lady Eve Balfour, who founded the Soil Association, who failed to prove her own hypothesis, that food grown with synthetic chemicals would lead to a deterioration of plant, animal and human health:

The many different chemical analyses, carried out on crops and livestock products, revealed no consistent or significant differences between the sections, other than the usually higher water content of the chemically grown fodder. Seasonal variations, and those between fields in the same section, often exceeded average sectional differences. But this lack of difference was in itself significant in that on the organic section, receiving no added minerals the analysis of soil and crops showed a nutrient status that remained consistently as high as that of the others.

(-Towards a Sustainable Agriculture–The Living Soil Lady Eve Balfour IFOAM 1977)

The Organic ideology originates in the 19th Century spiritualist belief in vitalism- the idea that life contained some kind of mystical substance that could not be synthesized in a lab- a superstition that had already been falsified by Friedrich Wohler in 1828 when he synthesized urea.
Unfortunately, the Organics movement never caught up and has been left behind with much lower yields and a higher environmental footprint ever since.

Bootstrapped to its own ideology- and there is no earthly reason otherwise to eschew synthetic N- Organics has to tie itself in knots to justify itself. Smaje himself claims that he is not opposed in principle to “small amounts” of synthetic fertiliser- but ignores the fact that this would never be permitted under Organic standards. The whole raison d’etre of Organics is that it never uses synthetics, regardless of any other considerations (including environmental impacts of being more land-hungry).

Since it has also rejected- indeed, some would say, defined itself as anti- GMO, Organics has a very tough up-hill struggle to meet the aspirations of increased yields that Smaje alludes to.

And this raises another curious point, one mentioned in the thread after Ann Conway’s post on Transition Network: that the problem of modern agriculture might not after all be lack of yield, but the opposite- one of over-production. Smaje is also indirectly making this curious, perhaps even pathological, point- despite the permaculture injunction of “Obtain a Yield” it turns out that we should deliberately devise low-yielding systems like permaculture and Organics in order to save the world from the terrible scourge of over-production, food waste and obesity.

So that is why permaculture is so damn appealing- easy to have a low-yielding system! Just don’t bother weeding so much, or using fertiliser, or developing high-yielding crop varieties!

Here I invoke a Twitter hashtag: #firstworldproblems. These issues deserve new posts of their own, but suffice it here to point out that food waste and obesity is a result of plenty, and feasts, while sometimes involving distasteful sins of gluttony, are far, far preferable to famines. Smaje also indicates he has some awareness of the complexities of the global food issue when he points out that all this synthetic nitrogen is all very well, but does not always get distributed properly, is over-used by some while those who might really benefit from it go without. I could not agree more- which is why I do not advocate Organics as a realistic means of feeding the world and alleviating hunger.

Both permaculture and Organics have failed to show any kind of value as “alternatives” to “conventional” (I would prefer to say “normal”) farming. If they worked as well, they would just be called “farming”.

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One response to “If Alternative Farming worked, it would just be called “Farming””

  1. J Edmondson says :

    An excellent article from Graham Strouts

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