Apologies for being absent for a few months and thanks to the people who have pinged me, asking when I would write some more... all very encouraging and flattering to know that this is being read beyond my immediate family.
The culprit? I was subsumed and consumed being meeting director for the World Energy Technologies Summit at UNESCO focused on the question, "Should we Leapfrog the Grid in the Developing World?" I'll write something about this experience later, as I'm too burned out from this meeting at present. Suffice to say this: the meeting people, process and content mirrored many of the main tensions around centralized and decentralized systems. Fascinating and frustrating! Many lessons and themes, but not just yet...
Flipping through the Financial Times this weekend, I found a little article most people would just scan over: "Threat to fertile soil blamed on farming practices" by Clive Cookson (Feb 14/04.) As the article leads off, " the loss of good quality soil because of poor agricultural practices is a serious problem around the world but it receives little attention compared with other big environmental threats..." I knew this distressing situation already, but what caught my trolling eye was something else: the fact that the brilliant evolutionary anthropologist, Jared Diamond , the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, was ringing the alarm bells and even making this his next topic of study. As he observes, "the over- exploitation of fertile soil had destroyed many civilizations through history, from those of the original Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to the Mayans of pre-Columbian Mexico and Guatemala."
The facts about declining soil productivity are not pretty. The amount of arable cropland worldwide has declined by 20 percent per head of population over the past decade. This is an exponentially deteriorating situation because it takes (we think) hundreds to thousands of years create just inches of healthy topsoil. I say "we think" because the science of soil is actually quite hard; we still don't fully understand soil in its full complexity – how it transforms itself from detritus and decay into something fertile and fecund. Agriculture, and in particular, industrial agriculture is largely to blame. Poverty and social instability is the other big factor, but these two drivers are not entirely unconnected. For now, let's just focus on agriculture, the timeless variety; that great social invention that pulled us out of hunter-and-gather mode into creating civilizations.
The first thing to note is that "agriculture does not improve soils," says Professor Chesworth of the University of Guelph in Canada. He continues: "For more than 10,000 years we have conducted a long agricultural experiment with the biosphere by using modified annual grasses to mine the soil for plant nutrients. Like all mining operations, this one will eventually fail unless we can find a way of conserving the fertility of soil that does not depend on the diminishing natural resources that we currently use for that purpose."
It's emotionally hard for us to link something as "motherhood" as agriculture with something as rapacious and extractive as mining, but this is essentially what we have been doing for millennia. Mostly, this has been a good thing: we've improved the human condition immeasurably by harnessing and controlling agriculture. The trick, if history is our guide, is to do so by balancing the needs of the earth with the needs of its people. The civilizations that didn't do this paid the ultimate price: decline and demise. The famous disappearance of the South Pacific civilization on Easter Island – the culturally rich and prosperous culture that produced those enigmatic and haunting statues – is almost certainly because they depleted the productivity of their soil. Scholars also think that the great civilization of Sumer in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilizations, disappeared suddenly because of poor water irrigation and soil practices.
Today's situation is many times more dangerous because the scale of the problem is global, not just limited to a small island in the South Pacific. I think an inevitable surprise, to use Peter Schwartz's term, will be future disruptions to our global food and agriculture production systems. By disruptions, I mean something as little as losing our ability to purchase mangoes whenever we please to more severe consequences like chronic famine, increased frequency of weird human-made diseases like BSE and SARS, to mass social instability and insecurity. Even the seemingly innocuous loss of mangoes, a minor inconvenience to people in the North, could disguise a major economic disaster to other dependent communities in the South. Whatever the case, I believe the current logic driving modern industrial agriculture is flawed and may be failing, and we need to develop alternative approaches and ways to create value within these industries. (The agriculture practices of many poor farmers, especially poor irrigation, is also another big problem, but that's for another discussion.)
Big sweeping statements like this need some back up. In such a short format as a blog, this is a challenge to do – even in such a long one – but here are a few teasers and arguments to chew on.
The food and agriculture business is many different businesses and industries, everything from bioscience to fast food. It's hard to get your head around this vast market, which meets the most fundamental human demand of all: keeping our bodies nourished, healthy and productive. We have companies like Monsanto and Cargill selling seeds and other inputs needed to grow things. There are also large manufacturers and producers like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, and then people in the distribution channels, retailers like Wall-mart, Tesco and Carrefour. The food business must include restaurants and take-out chains, especially large fast food behemoths like MacDonald's and KFC, which influence strongly the nature of production and supply. (Check out Fast Food Nation for a glimpse of this.) Then there are the thousands of middlemen and billions of smaller players – including the actual farmers and growers – but the market control and power is really with the larger corporations. Like big sumo wrestlers sitting on top of an anthill, they remain aware of the buzzing of activity underneath them, but they remain relatively unperturbed by what goes on. (Except when one of the fat men decides to sue an ant for patent infringement.)
The food and agriculture business is thus often big business, with increasing scale and scope all the time. There are reasons for why the industries evolved this way. A crude summary might go like this: commodity businesses favor scale and scope (in some cases vertical and horizontal integration business models), and globalization intensified this need through greater competition thus driving further consolidation. The fact that agriculture is increasingly high tech is another barrier keeping smaller players out of the game. New agribusiness and food technologies require serious R&D and consumer understanding, which is expensive. This is driven in part by consumer pull and producer push. It's easier to make money if margins are higher, which is easier to do if there is a constant churn of new products. This requires constant innovation. And consumers seem to like this variety. Food is also being produced farther and farther from its source of consumption, so much research and technology goes into extending their shelf life for transportation and handling, especially perishable ones. Even in protectionist France, the poster child for local production, most of the fruit and vegetables come from lower cost centers in North Africa (Morocco and Tunisia), Brazil, Chile, Vietnam, Ghana, Turkey, and so on. I know this because by French law, all groceries have to have their point of origin noted in the signage – very useful information for consumers like me.
The pastoral image and myth of the family farmer is also being replaced with a much more industrialized one. Farming is now highly mechanized and high tech. Modern farmers need to be just as familiar with computer modeling software as they do with operating trackers. While small family-run farms still exist, they are fast becoming an endangered species, especially in places like America, where just 2% of the population is involved in food production. Drive across the US and one can see these "mega-farms" stretching across entire states. Brazil has a similar trend with these massive soybean farms (soy bean is the #1 feed stock for poultry and pigs; it also competes with other seeds to make cooking oil), which span enormous distances. To survey land, small aircraft are now the tools of choice for the modern farmer. I recently read they are even using GPS-enabled micro-weather prediction systems to fine tune decisions on harvesting and planting.
The dominant corporations also have long established global brands, and these tend to win out over smaller local ones. These global brands have a lot of power, leverage, and investment behind them, which is just a fact of competitive life. That is, assuming it's a fair playing field in the marketplace, which it is not. The insidious part is that many of these large corporations have won this competitive advantage through creating rules that favor them; namely, they are very good at protecting their position through lobbying efforts that result in government subsidies and tax incentives. Possibly the most depressing example of maladaptive public policy in the world is farming policies in America. These are policies that were supposedly in place to protect the small farmer whereas in reality they have only increased farm consolidation, not to mention punish poorer producers in places like West Africa, where it makes infinitely more sense to grow things like cotton. Meanwhile, while lobbying and trade policies are technically legal, large agri-business has also been known to collude and engage in anti-trust activities on occasion. To get a sense of this, listen to this amazing interview about ADM's multifarious dealings in the 1990s on This American Life. ("The Fix is In" week of Feb 9/04. Also see the book, The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald.) Makes you wonder.
So to make money and survive in this business requires size – or so the logic goes. Economies of scale is needed for all kinds of things, but the most important (say the agriculture economists) is to achieve higher levels of efficiency. By higher levels, I mean every micron of efficiency has to be squeezed out of the system and optimized to make it work. Every bit counts. I read an amazing observation recently: if every food producer in the US were to suddenly work for free, consumers would only pay 10 cents more for every dollar spent on food. Not much more to squeeze out of that system!
But increasing efficiencies, in such a narrow way, may be reaching a point where things start to break down, where this is obviously counter-productive. In fact, we may need to turn our thinking about efficiency on its head. For instance, nature is not driven by efficiencies per se, but by the logic of abundance. In Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) by McDonough and Braungart, illustrate this most powerfully when they describe the role and function of a cherry tree. Yes, a cherry tree. To paraphrase them, every year, thousands of blossoms are created and used as fruit for humans, birds and plants in order that one pit makes it to the ground, and becomes rooted and grows and survives. The cherry tree achieves this feat without depleting the environment; in fact, the nutrients it gives freely leaves its surrounding environment much better off for its existence. Seen from a human frame of reference, many of these blossoms are "wasted" but we don't step back and say "how inefficient." The tree contributes more than it needs for its own short-term success because this logic of abundance is a winning formula that co-evolved over many millions of years.
Industrial agriculture doesn't work this way, quite the opposite. The use of monocultures, for instance, is a prime example. Monoculture farming is the practice of the planting of just one variety of "super-crop". This is usually a seed varietal or hybrid that has been genetically enhanced in some way, i.e. to generate a high yield, protecting against pests, be drought resistant or handle colder warmer. In addition to being more lucrative from a yield point of view, farming just one crop is also more efficient. So monocropping is very efficient and pays dividends accordingly.
All of this seems great. And it is great in the short term... Until diseases hit and soil productivity decreases rapidly. Until farmers find out that the hybrid seeds require three times more water and other inputs. That the ancillary services (and patent restrictions) tied to the monocrop make the farmer totally dependent on the supplier. The world got a glimpse of the downsides of this "green revolution" early on when a rice blight hit Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. In the past, rice blights didn't make international headline news, but that year it did. The blight was devastating, wiping out crops countrywide and threatened to cause mass disruption in places like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Why did this happen? In the past, blights were relatively contained because many different rice varietals were being grown, often varying from village to village. Co-evolving with each local microclimate, they also acted like natural breaks when diseases hit. This protection, however, vanished when in the mid 1960s the miracle "golden rice", a hybrid seed called IR-80, was introduced on a mass scale. It was to be the savior, the solution to feeding the hungry peoples of the world. And it did do much good, producing incredible results and yields. Even so, there was some resistance. In fact, in some places, it was legislated into effect; local farmers were forbidden to plant the old local varieties using the old "primitive" techniques. Ten years later, the disadvantages of monocropping became apparent with this dramatic blight. But even with this shock, and many shocks since, it's been hard to ween folks off of this technique just because it's so lucrative in the short term. Yet the critique is clear to an outside observer. As McDonough and Braungart's concisely put it: "the cultivation of one species drastically reduces the rich network of 'services' and side effects to which the entire ecosystem is engaged." In fact, studies from agriculture experts have since shown that while the economic payout usually rises in the short term, the overall quality of every aspect of the system is in decline. Conventional agriculture is often "a simplifier of ecosystems, replacing relative complex natural biological communities with relatively simple man made ones" write the Cradle-to-Cradle authors.
Culture and agriculture are intimately related as well, something the Anglo-American mindset overlooks. Culture and traditions often co-evolve with nature in such a way that it disguises deep intelligence and wisdom, especially to the eye of the modern expert. An archetypal story of this is in Good News for a Change: Hope for our Troubled Planet by David Suzuki and Holly Dressel (2002). It's about how modern experts in the late 1960s and 1970s almost destroyed the Balinese water temple cult, which managed the complex social and biochemical balance needed to sustain the rice terrace system on Bali, something that had been functioning well for thousands of years. This was one of the communities where Indonesian elites from Harvard actually forbade local farmers from using their old ways. But recently, especially after systemic crop failures, a new crop of experts is rediscovering the local intelligence and wisdom of the "water culture" practices. For instance, Dr. James Kremer, a systems ecologist, studied the Balinese water management system for rice cultivation using computer modeling. He needed computer modeling because the system was so complex, so intricate in all of its variables. (A wonderful example of how new and old, high tech and low tech may find a balanced symbiosis). He found that over two years, the traditional system produced 17 tonnes of rice per hectare versus just 9 tonnes using the modern inputs. The modern approach may have produced 19 tonnes the first year, but the second year was followed by a massive failure due to increased susceptibility to pests. So averaged out over two years, the traditional system still proved more robust. How ironic. Turned out that those wacky local priests were not just simple religious leaders, but very sophisticated ecological managers. The lesson learned here is that industrial agriculture has often had cultural consequences as well. Local intelligence and knowledge often gets squashed in a world of scale.
To speak abstractly for a minute, when you start decoupling local networks (in this case local production and consumer demand) from global and centralized systems (in this case large agribusiness and food companies), you have a recipe for trouble – a more volatile situation where the resilience of the system becomes hard to sustain. Vulnerabilities to disruption increase exponentially. While this may work for silicon chip manufacturing, this may be harder to sustain when it comes to our food system.
As the authors of Panarchy put it, "when the scales of human affairs become decoupled from those of nature, signals of change are eliminated and the learning that such signals can generate begins to wither." This is clearly happening in the case of our industrial agricultural system, and this a much more generic problem embedded in our own technological paradigm. Indeed, the reason why we are constantly surprised by "unintended consequences" of new technologies is a function of an impoverished design methodology and mental map. Our technological designers have tended to build things around a linear logic (cradle-to-grave) as opposed to cycles, which is what nature does. Moreover, technological solutions solve problems at one scale only, without paying attention to other layers and paces of change. It turns out that resilient systems have a careful division of labor between faster moving layers (e.g. stock markets, business metrics like quarterly reporting, product cycles, technological development, political mandates, fashion) and slow moving layers (e.g. infrastructure, education, culture, laws and social values, and of course natural systems.) As the Resilience Network scientists put it, technological solutions "represent a single variable intervention in a complex and imbricate systems" and "therefore create new problems at different time scales."
[From The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand]
Industrial agriculture is full of these examples, these new problems. Let's look at the mass application of fertilizer (which uses nitrogen-fixation) over the last few decades. Fertilizer, while lacking the sizzle of computers, is probably one of the most important inventions of the 20th century because of what it did to increase food supply. But this wonderful contribution to the human condition is looking less wonderful every day. The adverse consequences of industrialized fertilizer include many things that its original designers and promoters didn't think about, including:
Industrial agriculture is clearly dominated by the faster pace of big business. This has caused much under-investment in the lower moving layers, especially the ecological infrastructure it depends upon – and most evidently in our soils, the most important "layer" of all. It's no coincidence that another word for soil is "earth". When there is disconnect between these different paces of change, the lower layers start to make noises. They go into "revolt" mode, and start churning out small and large signals that a rebalancing is needed. Revolutions from the bottom up occur. I believe declining soil productivity is just one signal of this. BSE and SARS are other signs. Both of these diseases were really a product of the industrial agriculture system: BSE because of the unnatural use of animal protein to feed (which fattens the cows) and the centralization of slaughtering; SARS because of the density of chicken and pig farming using questionable standards so close to large urban centers.
Is there some good news? I think we are starting to see more thinkers and agriculture practitioners think beyond the current model to a "post industrial" approach. This approach is both trying to recover older wisdom from traditional cultures and trying to mimic the sophistication of natural systems. We're using technology, of course, to do this. A few pioneering agricultural economists are showing that the most productive form of agriculture is actually polyculture, which thrives in both traditional cultures and nature. Studies are also weighing in against the big-is-bigger/monoculture approach; it turns out that the larger a farm gets, the productivity drops proportionally. Organic farming and consumption is still a niche business, but growing steadily. If we take away some of the many hidden and explicit subsidies large food and agriculture producers get from governments, perhaps other models might have a chance to make it in the market place. That's probably not enough. Many dilemmas remain in getting local production economically self-supporting. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine alternatives, especially with so many hungry and under-nourished people on the planet. And the current power structure appears too entrenched, too locked into a self-reinforcing status quo, that it's hard to see that changing in the near term. Even if and when the crises do come – whatever these may be – it will tempting to use the conventional approaches and short term fixes.
However, an interesting project called the Sustainable Food Lab , hosted by the Global Leadership Institute, is taking a systemic approach, which may be promising. As the website describes it, "the purpose of the Sustainable Food Lab is to accelerate the movement of sustainably-produced food from niche to mainstream. A Lab Team with members from food companies, governments, farmer and farm worker organizations, and non-governmental organizations, from North and South America and Europe, will create prototypes and pilots of sustainable food supply chains that can become large, mainstream and economically, environmentally and socially sustainable for all actors in the chain. This Lab is being co-convened with the Sustainability Institute, Unilever, and SYSCO." So out of these experiments at the fringes, large food companies may reframe their business propositions. Despite my negative portrayal, many of these corporations actually want to contribute to a sustainable marketplace; they are clearly part of the solution and not the enemy.
The trump card of the opposing view tends to start and stop with the consumer (despite the fact most of the power is still on the supply side.) People won't change, they say, and we are just meeting the demands of the average consumer. This may be so. This may be a chicken-and-egg situation requiring an "event" to unhinge the current model of value creation. Fine. I think we'll be getting these events in short shrift. And as a cook, I'm becoming aware of limitations of season-free food consumption. Uncoupling these things does sacrifice things like taste, which is something good cooks (and eaters) value the most. Read any respected chef's cookbook. The first thing they stress is to buy seasonally and locally available food. In a strange way, I'm almost grateful that my local marché in my quartier forces this kind of purchasing discipline on me. I can't get everything and anything I want, all the time. I have to wait patiently for September before the mushroom season begins; and I have to wait for the peaches, plums and apricots to arrive around May and June. Despite the availability of cherry tomatoes year-round, large tomatoes only have taste if they are organically grown and picked in the hazy days of August and September. I don't bother with the rest anymore. There is something wonderful about this enforced buying behavior, and I don't really miss the choice of twenty other things that I would pay three times the price for because they were flown in from Chile.
And then it dawned on me: the most powerful change agent is creating from the bottom-up new sources of value, and then bringing them to the marketplace. Perhaps the solution is to reclaim (repackage?) powerful "value-adds" like the joy and deep satisfaction that food and agriculture brins to our lives? The happiest, most content moments of my life have always been around a dinner table after I have cooked a well-appreciated meal with the very best of ingredients. This is universal, primal, a common denominator uniting the peoples of the planet. I have also witnessed the immense pride local producers have over their products. This is what the Slow Food movement is all about. (See this article for more.) We need to find a way to reintroduce a polychromatic vision of what food is all about – with all of its fast and slow moving layers – as opposed to the monochromatic model industrial agriculture has given us. Fast, cheap, but hollow and often harmful.
So, to sum up, back to my inevitable surprise – not a prediction per se but a predetermined element – that we'll see more and more future shocks within the agriculture and food system. I think we'll see disruptions because (1) the dominant mental map relies on a narrow interpretation of food production and consumption, ignoring or under-investing in other natural services and cultural values it depends upon (2) the key actors in this system have reached such a large scale that they are increasingly becoming decoupled from local consumption and local producers.
Getting back to the ground, or I should say soil, for one last observation. When I trolled through the FT website to find this article, it was predictably well buried behind "important" news about the leaked Microsoft code and the Franco-Anglo naval [gazing?] accords. So amusing, then, that such stories get such stock whereas fundamental things like the long-term stability of our global food system are relegated to back pages. But as the article observes, soil is just not sexy. Come to think of it, few slow moving drivers are sexy in the conventional media, even though these may influence our future so decisively and irrevocably. (For instance, climate change only became sexy when the "abrupt" climate change scenarios emerged.)
Of all of the big challenges out there, then, I'd say the most important is catalyzing a step-change in how we communicate about these things. We need to find ways to help us change our perceptions about the relationship between fast and slow moving layers. This is a call to all creatives and communicators to figure out a better way to bring to life the relevant links between the global and the local, the long term and immediate present. Our species great learning challenge is to start seeing and experiencing the Long Now in its full complexity and multiplicity. The Long Now is about developing some responsibility for the future. It's a temporal trick, an icon (an actual 10,000 year clock which will in a mountain) and Foundation created by Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and others to help us master "long lead times, long lag times, the hidden effects of cumulative change." As Brand puts it in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, "the trick is learning how to treat the last ten thousand years as if it were last week, and the next ten thousand years as if it were next week. Such tricks confer advantage."
The Long Now is an example of a neologism, charismatic idea and physical monument designed to help us tell this story better. We'll need other devices to overcome our cognitive limitations in connecting the past, present and future together. We'll need a way not to just think and imagine the world linearly but spherically, on multiple scales and dimensions.
Until then, do me a favor. Find some soil, dirt, earth in the next day or so. Some good rich dirt if you can. Get up close and personal with it: pick up a handful. Feel it, smell it, and look at it carefully, closely, with curiosity... and perhaps even some reverence because it's an integral part of who we are and what we will be. If the soil ingredients could tell you their story, what would you want to know? This is how to celebrate the Long Now.Posted by nicole at February 20, 2004 11:27 AM