Michael Pollan on food and farming
October 30, 2008, 8:14 pm
Filed under: Farming, Global change, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Laxness, illness, holiday and day job have made me a particularly slack blogger recently, for which I apologise. Here’s something I should have written a few weeks ago

If I were writing Eating the Sun now (Amazon US|UK, since you ask…), rather than a couple of years ago, the biggest difference would probably be that there would be more about food and farming in it. The fact that photosynthesis is where food ultimately comes from is of course there in the book (it’s actually the theme of one of my favorite passages) and agriculture crops up in various places and guises. But it could have been worked in more deeply — something Jeremy Cherfas’s review picked up on — and in today’s climate it certainly would have been.

So this passage in Michael Pollan’s recent piece in the New York Times — a letter to the new president on reassessing the politics, business and culture of food in America — struck a chord:

The core idea could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done — fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

The key point in the piece — that the food business accounts for about 20% of US fossil fuel use — is an important one, and the article has received a great deal of pick-up, including by its intended reader, as interviewed by Joe Klein.

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

There’s much in the article to like, though I must say that I wish Pollan would take a leaf out of George Monbiot‘s book and put up references on his website to the various unnamed studies he cites. And I wish he’d give percentages as well when he gives crude numbers, and vice versa. If you don’t do that you don’t give a real quantitative sense of the state of play, and you engender the feeling that you are using the numbers more for rhetoric than clarification: are 4700 farmers’ markets in the US a lot or a little?

As I say, though, there’s much to agree with. Perennialisation, for example, makes a lot of sense to me, if it can be got to work, as do winter cover crops, and making sure farmers markets take food stamps. An increased reliance on polycultures and controls on antibiotic use and agricultural pollution from intensive livestock operations all seem reasonable, and the second two seem things a regulatory regime might bring about. It seems to me that he’s less clearly right on fine tuning, as opposed to cutting, subsidies; if you redeploy subsidies (which I think is what he is suggesting) you’ll just encourage new ways to farm the subsidy. It might be easier, as well as cheaper, to scrap subsidy than to create subsidies that can’t be gamed and have no unintended harmful consequence. But I’m not dogmatic on that, and I certainly think doing something about subsidies for vast grain farms is a good idea.

He’s also oversold, it seems to me, on organic food and becoming locavores. Shipping food long distances does not necessarily give it a higher carbon footprint than locally sourced food. Ocean shipping (and for that matter the sort of truck shipping that a company like Walmart does) can be pretty energy efficient. There is a much cited study showing that New Zealand lamb, consumed in the UK, is a much better carbon bet than Welsh lamb, consumed in the UK (James McWilliams wrote about this in the NYT); Michael Specter wrote a terrific piece in the New Yorker about this and other subtle aspects of the “food mile” idea that reveal its woeful oversimplification. The fact that it can make economic sense for food to be shipped from A to B even if very similar food is being shipped from B to A — biscuits from Denmark to America and America to Denmark, for example — is, as I understand it, the basis of the work for which Paul Krugman just won the Nobel Prize. Both parties get economies of scale that offset the transaction costs, and there seems to be no theoretical reason why this would not be so in many cases even if full environmental externalities were accounted for. (No false modesty in the “as I understand it” — I may have this wrong and would welcome knowledgeable correction.)

On organics, there are a bunch of problems. For me the starting point is that some of the goals organic farming prizes are right: but the assertion that achieving all those goals is best done with no industrial inputs whatsoever is an ideological shackle that leaves the movement fatally hobbled, and open to the criticism that its a scam designed to create artificial market segmentation and elite price premiums. In short I agree with Gary Jones at Muck and Mystery, who actually makes a living from the land:

Balanced fertility in healthy soils growing improved crop cultivars gives the best nutrition and taste while continuously improving soil.

There are good practices that are approved by organic regulators but they are good practices in any agronomic system. Maintaining soil organic matter by using green and brown manures, no-till cultivation, leaving crop trash in place, cover cropping and intercropping is just good practice. Attention to soil micro and macro organisms is also good practice.

But, the effective use of manufactured fertilizers is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter and achieve balanced fertility. The use of some GMOs makes perfect sense though not all. The effective use of some pesticides and herbicides in an integrated pest management system makes perfect sense.

We need to move beyond these lack wit notions and support good growers without fussy taboos that defy scientific evidence and reason.

Organics are also frequently oversold. If the “recent University of Michigan study” Pollan looks to for evidence that organic farming can feed the world is this one, then it seems to me that the criticisms of it here are pretty strong (yes, that attack on the work comes out of the Hudson Institute; seems pretty well argued though.)

Organic farming is also not necessarily good for the climate: sometimes it’s harmful. A UK government report (pdf) which my friend Tom pointed out to me last year gives figures from a study at Cranfield University for chicken production which show that normal industrial production uses less energy and has less acidification and eutrophication potential than free range and organic alternatives. For milk the conventional uses slightly more energy but has less global-warming, acidification or eutrophication impact; in both cases organic uses more land.

I think Pollan’s wrong to imply that polyculture in itself will drastically reduce the need for energy-intensive fertilizers. Farmers were using fertilizers long before the shift to monocultures; farmland has always lost fertilitity over time. And putting fertility back with sunlight alone is hard — you can do it for nitrates, given time, and of course for soil organic matter, but it doesn’t really happen at all for phosphates. There are no phosphate-fixing microbes, because there’s (thankfully) no suitable gas in the atmosphere for them to fix. When it comes down to it, anything that you take from farmland that’s not carbon, hydrogen and oxygen will need to be replaced sometime: all the sunlight gives you is carbohydrates. Replacement will take energy, and that means more sunlight somewhere else driving renewable generation of some sort, or the use of fossil or fissile fuels. (Exporting less protein from farms can reduce the inputs you need, since more nitrogen etc stays put; but that means convincing people to eat less meat, which while probably a good idea for many of us is a bit beyond the president’s powers, I suspect.)

You can substitute muscle for some inputs: labour intensive farming can replace energy intensity in farming to some extent. But who’s going to do that? If you want labour intensive farming, surely you’re best trying to get it going in places where labour is cheap — which is to say not the US. John McCain was undoubtedly wrong to claim that native born Americans won’t pick lettuce even at $50 an hour. But it is true that Americans don’t at the moment seem to like farm labour as a career much, and that if it takes $50 an hour to change their minds then lettuce is going to be very expensive. So Pollan may claim that “We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America … The revival of farming in America … will generate tens of millions of new ‘green jobs’,” but who is going to fill them? When he writes “We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories” it’s not clear who “we” are, and why the workers who were passively supplied aren’t included in “our” number. Seems to me the workers made a choice — a constrained one, of course; they all are — and it is not clear how “we” or anyone can reverse that choice. They have seen Paree; it will be hard to get them back down on to the farms. This may be false consciousness; people might be a lot happier on farms, wresting their bread from the earth by the sweat of their brows. But I think it will be hard to convince them this is so.

More or less arbitrary Washington farm image from flickr user Darhawk, used under a Creative Commons licence. The picture of Obama I couldn’t find details for and will remove if anyone objects.


Prince Charles — not my hero
October 25, 2007, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Farming, Nature writing, Published stuff

Since one of the infrequent commenters here actually asked, I dug up what I wrote about Prince Charles (One of Time’s Heroes of the Environment) in Newsweek International, June 14th 1999. It’s basically just another example of my tedious banging on on the subject of “nature”, but still current, in that I don’t think my views on this aspect of the subject have changed much in the intervening eight years.

Getting Nostalgic About ‘Nature’

In the debate over genetically modified crops, the question isn’t what’s natural–it’s what’s right. And that’s hard political work.

One of the few diverting aspects of Britain’s largely joyless European election campaign has been the Natural Law Party’s approach to the issues. Other parties say simply that a particular version of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe would be a rather good or bad thing–whatever. The Natural Law Party [now defunct, alas], on the other hand, promotes the values of Transcendental Meditation and yogic flying, an advanced form of the art which consists of flapping your knees while bouncing around in something like the lotus position. Apparently this has already lessened levels of violence in both Merseyside and the Middle East. The Natural Lawyers do, however, have one concrete political policy. The party wants a Europewide ban on all genetically modified crops.Prince Charles

In this, if in little else, the Natural Law Party is very much in the mainstream. The British public has taken against genetically modified crops in a big way. Activists uproot them and supermarkets attempt not to furnish their customers with them. This week the Prince of Wales–a landowner and organic farmer–came out against them for the umpteenth time, a piece of non-news that still managed to provoke headlines throughout the realm.

Europeans have in general been more skeptical about genetically modified crops than Americans, who have so far swallowed the idea, and the food, with relatively few qualms. And among the Europeans the Brits have been particularly adamant in their refusal to have any truck with such things. The recent history of British agricultural politics–the culling of millions of cows for fear that their increasing madness was spreading into the population at large–has left the public profoundly distrustful of unnatural tinkering in the food chain. The prince says that he wants us to reject all genetic modification and instead work with nature for the long-term benefit of humankind.

The problem with this desire is that nature has no interest at all in the long-term benefit of humankind. Nature has no interest in anything. And even if it did, mankind has been overriding nature routinely for millennia. That’s what agriculture is all about. A natural Britain would be a woodland that could feed only a few–when not covered by the glaciers of a natural ice age. Selective breeding–a subject royalty understands in its bones–removed nature from the farmyard long before the first endonucleases started to cut up the first artificial strands of DNA.

People like the prince use nature not biologically but nostalgically, to refer to a time when things were not so dashed artificial. This is the perennial window dressing of the reactionary, nature as an ideological prop for people whose notion of what is natural tends to include their own position in society. For the prince–doubtless considered by many, if not himself, as Britain’s natural sovereign–nature is part of our very souls, which is why we have an instinctive nervousness about tampering with it. His love for authentic British farming practices is thus part of his sense of what the nature of the British people is, an ideology of blood and the Soil Association.

It is no shock that a man whose own genes have a constitutional importance should worry about genes elsewhere. And some issues that the prince brings up are legitimate causes for concern. The effect of genetically altered organisms on the wider environment needs to be understood better than it is today. The idea that this technology may be controlled by very few companies is disturbing. It fuels widespread fear that genetic modification will serve only as a handmaiden to agribusiness, rather than producing higher-yielding crops to be distributed equitably among farmers in developing countries. But these are all arguments for getting the genetic modification of crops right, technically and politically: not for abandoning it as intrinsically immoral simply because it is unnatural.

The question is not what is natural. It is what is right. Reaching a judgment about that means balancing a lot of different issues and interests: the freedom a company should have to pursue profit within the law; the fear of harm to health or the environment; the altruistic wish to develop technologies that genuinely help developing nations; the self-interest that leads people to want cheaper or better food. Balancing these things is hard political work. But it is possible, and democracies have shown themselves in the long run to be pretty good at it. Democratic efforts to such ends, however, are not helped by a counterproductive nostalgia. Beingyogic flying unhelpful is not against the law, nor should it be. But the fact that Charles gets a platform on such matters purely because of the situation he was born into is still offensive. The bouncy-bottomed Natural Law Party may stand for a lot of tosh, but at least it stands for elections. That puts it one up on the prince.

Prince Charles picture from Smileykt on a creative commons licence; yogic fliers copyright apparently unknown.


Jatropha and biofuels beyond corn
October 13, 2007, 12:12 pm
Filed under: Farming, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

JatrophaSome things we have in Nature this week prompt me to a catch-up post on biofuels.

If you’re talking about photosynthesis as an energy source, then you’re talking about biofuels, and you have to respect both their promise and their pitfalls. They cannot be a wholesale replacement for fossil fuels. But they are already a large part of the energy economy in many poor countries, where the rural population relies on gathered firewood. Enhancing the efficiency of this biomass use (and replacing it with other renewable sources where possible) would be a worthwhile development goal simply in terms of reducing indoor air pollution. Beyond that, solid and liquid biofuels may have potential in various situations and niches. And by enriching soils, growing biofuels may also draw down some carbon from the atmosphere and tuck it away.

To make this work, though, we need to do two things. One is to find out how best to grow and use the most promising biofuel crops. Another is to stop wasting time and money and goodwill on corn-based ethanol and various low efficiency temeperate-climate-based biodiesel schemes.

We addressed both of these issues in Nature this week. My colleague Daemon Fairless reports from India on jatropha, a much touted oil crop.

Although there is reason to be enthusiastic about jatropha’s potential as a biodiesel feedstock in India and beyond, there is one rather sobering concern: despite the fact that jatropha grows abundantly in the wild, it has never really been domesticated. Its yield is not predictable; the conditions that best suit its growth are not well defined and the potential environmental impacts of large-scale cultivation are not understood at all.jatropha plantation “Without understanding the basic agronomics, a premature push to cultivate jatropha could lead to very unproductive agriculture,” says Pushpito Ghosh, who has been working on the plant for the best part of a decade, and who is now director of the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) in Bhavnagar.

I think it’s a fine and thought provoking read (and benefits from the fact that our recent redesign has encouraged sometimes robust discussion in the new comments threads).

We also have a leader on biofuels more generally, posted here in its entirety

Kill king corn

Biofuels need new technology, new agronomy and new politics if they are not to do more harm than good.

Zea mays has become the very emblem of plenty, with rich golden cobs of corn (maize) overspilling from some of the most effectively farmed arable lands on the planet. Jatropha curcas, on the other hand, is an unprepossessing and indeed toxic plant, better suited to scrubland and hedges. Yet in the world of biofuels, ugly-duckling jatropha has the potential to be, if not a hero, then at least one of the good guys, and a harbinger of better things to come. The golden-headed siren corn, on the other hand, is inspiring a wrong-headed gold-rush — to a dead-end of development that is polluting the modest aspirations the world might have for biofuels in general.

The common complaints about biofuels — and they seem to become more common by the day — are that they are expensive and ineffective at reducing fossil-fuel consumption, that they intensify farming needlessly, that they dress up discredited farm subsidies in new green clothes, and that they push up the price of food. All these things are true to some extent of corn-based ethanol, America’s biofuel of choice, and many are also true of Europe’s favoured biodiesel plans.

As far as the greenhouse goes, figures from the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Global Subsidies Initiative put the cost of averting carbon dioxide emissions by using corn-based ethanol at more than $500 a tonne of carbon dioxide. What’s more, the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer in growing corn leads to significant emissions of nitrous oxide, an even more potent greenhouse gas.

Despite this, the generous tax allowance of 51 cents a gallon given to ethanol blenders in the United States has made corn peculiarly profitable (provided that tariffs continue to keep out far more efficiently produced ethanol from the sugar plantations of Brazil). In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis point to estimates that this artificial price-hike will drive world corn prices up by 20% by 2010. This has a knock-on effect on other staple crops — more land for corn means less for wheat, for example. Higher prices are good news for farmers, including some of those in developed countries. But they can be bad news for the very poor, who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food. According to World Bank studies, for the poorest people in the world a 1% increase in the price of staple food leads to a 0.5% drop in caloric consumption.

This sorry state of affairs has the small benefit of providing a stark, contrasting background against which to sketch out what a successful and sustainable biofuels industry might look like. It will be based not on digestible starch from staple crops such as corn or cassava, but for the most part on indigestible cellulose, with some room for biodiesels that, because they grow on marginal land, do not compete with food production. In the medium to long term, it will not seek to produce ethanol — a poor fuel — but a range of more complex fuels delivered by carefully designed microbes.

A rosy biofuels future will enjoy the benefits of free trade, allowing the countries and peoples of the tropics to ship some of their abundant sunlight north in the form of fuel. It will also require serious amounts of agronomic research — as we report on page 652, one of the most significant problems with jatropha is that, as yet, remarkably little is known about how best to grow and improve it. One focus of such research must be in the development of plants, such as jatropha, that make do on little water, and those that require low inputs of nitrogen. This is inherently more feasible in the case of fuels, where all that needs to be taken out of the system are carbon and hydrogen, than in the case of food, where there is a need to export nitrogen in the form of protein as well. Another focus will be on systems that actively store carbon in the soil, improving it for future agricultural use and at the same time doing a little bit more to take the edge off the carbon/climate crisis.

Biofuels are unlikely ever to be more than bit-players in the great task of weaning civilization from Earth’s coal-mine and oil-well teats. But they may yet have valuable niches — including some that allow them to serve some of the world’s poor, both as fuels for their own use and as exports. Provided, that is, that someone kills king corn.

A few links for those wanting more: Biofuels : Is the cure worse than the disease? (pdf), is a much talked about recent document from the OECD, and the ins and outs of its reception are discussed on the FT’s website. The point about greenhouse emissions from heavily fertilised biofuel crops was made recently by Paul Crutzen and others in this paper (pdf) discussed by Chemistry World and Futurepundit; the conversely optimistic point about biofuel plantations not needing to export nitrogen and thus opening up low intensity options has recently been raised by Robert Anex of Iowa State in work discussed here on the Biopact site. Biomass polycultures leading to increased soil carbon is the subject of a much discussed paper by David Tilman and colleagues in Science last year. This summer the FT ran an op-ed by Jacques Diouf of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation on trade and development issues around biofuels. And then there’s John Mathews’ thought provoking Energy Policy article Biofuels: What a Biopact between North and South could achieve (subscription required), which is I think the first place I’ve seen the term “ergoculture” contrasted with agriculture.

Images from Valerio Pillar, www.jatropha.org and ~dabbler~, formerly jowo under creative commons license with thanks

Soil-based solutions
May 11, 2007, 5:23 pm
Filed under: Farming, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Via Gary at Muck and Mystery, various reports on the conference on biochar/agrichar/terra preta nova/what-you-will that just ended down in Australia. If you’re not up to speed on this, the general idea is that people could help solve a great many problems by putting enriching soils with reduced carbon in charcoal-like form. This gets rid of the carbon for a long time (charcoal is very refractory) and improves the soil in various not yet fully understood ways. My colleague Emma wrote a lovely feature on the subject last year. There’s what seems to be a thriving discussion board on the subject at Hypography.

The conference was opened by Tim “Weather Maker” Flannery, which is a pretty big name for a new field to manage to attract, I’d have thought. Here’s an overview of the conference by Kelpie Wilson of the Energy Bulletin. One interesting aspect is the idea of tying this issue to the issue of crappy stoves that drive indoor air pollution and waste a lot of energy.

Transect points, a blog by soil scientist Philip Small who, like Gary, is tracking this issue, has more reports in a round-up. As one of the people quoted says, the great thing about this field is that it opens up in so many different directions. Its also low tech enough to be of real use globally. The flip side of that is that different techniques will be needed in different places — this is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all technology.

As it happens we’ve a look at the subject in Nature this week, too — a commentary (pdf) from one of the field’s main men, Johannes Lehmann of Cornell, which takes things forward nicely, I think. One of the advantages he points out for biochar sequestration — as opposed, say, to sequestration of carbon in aquifers — is that once the carbon is in the soil “it is difficult to imagine any incident or change in practise that would cause a sudden loss of stored carbon”. And he also argues that this sort of practise could be carried out at a serious scale:

I have calculated emissions reductions for three separate biochar approaches that can each sequester about 10% of the annual US fossil-fuel emissions (1.6 billion tonnes of carbon in 2005). First, pyrolysis of forest residues (assuming 3.5 tonnes biomass per hectare per year) from 200 million hectares of US forests that are used for timber production; second, pyrolysis of fast-growing vegetation (20 tonnes biomass per hectare per year) grown on 30 million hectares of idle US cropland for this purpose; third, pyrolysis of crop residues (5.5 tonnes biomass per hectare per year) for 120 million hectares of harvested US cropland. In each case, the biochar generated by pyrolysis is returned to the soil and not burned to offset fossil-fuel use. Even greater emissions reductions are possible if pyrolysis gases are captured for bioenergy production.

Similar calculations for carbon sequestration by photosynthesis suggest that converting all US cropland to Conservation Reserve Programs — in which farmers are paid to plant their land with native grasses — or to no-tillage would sequester 3.6% of US emissions per year during the first few decades after conversion; that is, just a third of what one of the above biochar approaches can theoretically achieve.

Those, Lehmann stresses, are rough calculations to highlight the potential, not realistic scenarios. But might it not make sense to start developing them into realistic scenarios? If you have inexpensive feedstock, this is a pretty intriguing technology.