The perennial imperative: Breaking the land-abuse spiral of annual agriculture
The perennial imperative: Breaking the land-abuse spiral of annual agriculture
by Dan Allen, originally published by Energy Bulletin | MAY 31, 2011
“Was there ever a time since our gathering and hunting days that the planet’s capital stock has not been drawn down to support agriculture and civilization? …[A] hypothesis: Since agriculture began, humans have produced no technological product or process – including our crops and livestock – without drawing down the earth’s capital stock and, thereby, reducing the overall net primary production of its ecosystems using only contemporary sunlight.” – Wes Jackson, in “The Virtues of Ignorance” (2008)
“In the broadest sense, the life span of a civilization is limited by the time needed for agricultural production to occupy the available arable land and then erode through the topsoil. How long it takes to regenerate the soil…defines the time required to reestablish an agricultural civilization – providing of course that the soil is allowed to rebuild.” – David R. Montgomery, in “Dirt” (2007)
“What must we do? …[W]e must not work or think on a heroic scale. …We must work on a scale proper to our limited abilities. We must not break things we cannot fix. There is no justification ever for permanent ecological damage. If this imposes the verdict of guilt upon us all, so be it.” – Wendell Berry,http://energybulletin.net/stories/2011-05-05/what-must-we-do
SUMMARY: It’s time to admit that annual crops are an inappropriate technology. We can’t HELP but misuse them, and the consequences of their inevitable misuse are dreadful, essentially permanent, and morally unforgivable. Their use must be strictly controlled and viewed as potentially dangerous to our well-being. We must find a better way.
A TEACHABLE MOMENT ON 'ADVENTURE CREEK'
Will it ever be possible for us to tread more carefully upon this Earth? -- To wield our clumsy power with an appropriate caution? To acknowledge and respect our unavoidable ignorance? To strop thrashing about carelessly and, in the end, diminishing all that we touch?
On bad days, I’d say no. On good days, like today, I’d say maybe.
…Listen to this:
Lately, after my daughter & nephew (6 & 7 years-old) help out in the community garden on Saturday mornings, I’ve been taking them down to a nearby wooded creek for an ‘adventure.’
Our latest quest brought us to an exposed stream-bank that featured a pretty perfect soil profile – plants in the thin dark organic O-horizon, 8-inch root-filled A-horizon, and then a thick lower layer of dense clay. While we sat there making a small arsenal of gooey clay balls with which to pelt a nearby tree (-- OK, I indulged them), I had a good opportunity to see if it was possible for little kids to grasp one of the most important earthly ideas of our species – what Wes Jackson calls, “the problem of agriculture.”
I pointed out the difference in qualities between the topsoil and the subsoil -- they got it. I showed them how plants have an easy time growing in the topsoil, but would have a tough time growing in the dense, clayey subsoil – no problem. I told them that if you plowed-up the soil surface or let the plants get eaten down too much, it was pretty easy for the topsoil to wash away – understood. I amazed them with the outrageously long time it took to build up just an inch of topsoil & thus how precious and vital it was – got it. I pointed to the mud-colored stream and asked them where the mud came from and what would be the result of it going bye-bye – they nailed it. And finally I offered them the example of my sheep-pasture/mixed-fruit-nut-orchard as an alternative form of agriculture that would hold onto the precious topsoil – slam dunk.
Two converts. OK…so that’s two down, 7 billion to go.
The key points here, and ones I hope I can drive home a bit more in this essay, are this: (1) healthy, living topsoil is THE foundation of all human life and is essentially non-renewable on human time-scales, (2) annuals-based agriculture – even almost all non-industrial versions – is inherently/inevitably wasteful of topsoil, (3) there is another type of agriculture (perennial polyculture) that inherently/inevitably BUILDS topsoil, and (4) we have not only the knowledge and opportunity to make a transition to a smarter, saner form of agriculture over the next several decades, we have a moral obligation to do so.
So yea, the three of us tackled ‘the problem of agriculture,’ pelted a silver maple with some clay balls (to the admonishment of a resident chipmunk), and went on to have, in the words of my nephew, “the best adventure ever!”
…So then how DO we stop ourselves from thrashing about so destructively? How DO we learn to be careful and respectful of our ignorance? To stop wrecking the joint? Well…maybe we just need to start teaching the right things – the important things. And then we need to start DOING the right things – the important things.
And maybe then we have a chance. …Maybe.
ENTER ANNUALS, EXIT SOIL, EXIT HUMANS
If you have not read geomorphologist David R. Montgomery’s book “Dirt” (2007), you need to (1) find a copy, (2) brew a strong pot of tea, (3) sit down, and (4) spend a few hours staring the stark-naked truth of our species’ 10,000-year agricultural experiment dead in the face – the whole shockingly-terrible, pathetically-repetitive, tragically-avoidable truth.
If Montgomery’s book does not horrify, shame, humble, anger, and sadden you, you have not understood it -- repeat steps 2 to 4 until you do. If it does not fundamentally change the way you think about the future of annuals-based agriculture in this country, you need to start thinking a little more seriously about agriculture.
A main theme of Montgomery’s “Soil” is this: the massive soil loss/degradation associated with annuals-based agriculture is not just an artifact of just our irresponsible 500-year colonial period, or even the frenzied industrial orgy of the past 150 years – it is an inevitable result. i.e., Wherever humans have tilled the soil and sown annuals, destruction of the soil and essentially permanent reduction of biotic potential followed – sometimes over centuries, sometimes decades, sometimes in a few disastrous years, but ALWAYS eventually.
And as soil is the foundation of every civilization, the inevitable degradation of soil subjected to annual tillage presages the end of every civilization that has chosen the annuals-based path. Because as a civilization becomes soil-challenged, the pace of soil degradation inevitably increases (for reasons I’ll go into shortly), and the civilization becomes increasingly vulnerable to a host of civilization-ending ailments on every front – agricultural, social, economic, political, and climatic/environmental.
In fact, given the preponderance of historical evidence we now have, it is not unreasonable, I think, to summarize our 10,000-year experiment with annual agriculture in the form of a general principle: Enter annuals, exit soil, exit humans.
So as a country enthusiastically washing away our top-soil as we speak – and likely set to embark on another massive erosive assault on marginal lands as industrial agriculture falters – is this not something we should maybe address like grownups at some point?
THE LAND-ABUSE SPIRAL OF ANNUALS-BASED AGRICULTURE
So, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of this land degradation business.
Now, it is one thing to make the cogent historical observation that annuals-based agriculture has weakened and destroyed civilizations, but it is another task to show why this end result is so inevitable – i.e. why annuals-based agriculture, for all its seductively bounteous yields, cannot HELP but self-destruct in the end. Montgomery develops this theme nicely in ‘Dirt’, but I’d like to formalize it here as a sort of general algorithm: the Land Abuse Spiral of Annuals-based Agriculture (LASAA, for you fans of annoying agricultural acronyms – AAA’s).
In a nutshell, the ‘spiral’ goes like this: (1) a few years of low agricultural yield leads to (2) economic stress in the agricultural sector, which leads to (3) the initiation or expansion of poor land-use practices, which leads to (4) soil-loss and degradation, which leads back to (1) again – lower agricultural yields. The cycle continues to spiral downward in a positive-feedback loop generating ever more soil loss/degradation and ever lower yields.
The end result, after a few years/decades/centuries of this land degradation, is a host of nasty consequences (for those living it) that go by some rather innocuous-sounding names (by those recounting or predicting it): agricultural failure, civilization collapse, rapid depopulation, and abandonment of the land. Human abandonment (or extreme population reduction) is then followed by a loooooonnnng period (hundreds or, more typically, thousands of years) of biotic impoverishment, as the geologically-slow processes of soil re-accumulation and ecosystem rebuilding occur – often from near-primary succession.
…Oh those barren, rocky hillsides of our soil-denuded homeland – land where the scrawny, rock-lickin’ goats roam!
THE SPIRAL OF CERTAIN DOOM: FLESHING IT OUT A BIT
In the interest of space, I won’t go through the relentless, grisly accounting of historical examples of this land abuse spiral. For those of you interested (or skeptical), take a look at Montgomery’s book. He presents a veritable silted-in-dam-load of detailed examples ranging from the dawn of agriculture to the present day – from Mesopotamia to Manaus.
But in order to flesh it out the destructive spiral a bit more, consider the following slightly-more-detailed scenario. And note here that we could start at any of the four cornerstones of the land-abuse spiral of annual agriculture (LASAA!) -- but for the sake of example, let’s begin with this:
(1) Some inevitable climatic stress (severe drought, series of intense storms, extended temperature extremes) causes a reduction of agricultural yield -- e.g., lower yield per acre, per input cost, per energy input, and/or per capita.
(2) This reduction in yield contributes to stresses in the agricultural economy -- e.g., financial trouble & bankruptcies of smaller farms, loss of skilled farmers and farm-culture to cities, consolidation of small farms to absentee owners and salaried tenant farmers, increases in population as a response to social breakdown and/or economic needs of subsistence farmers, decreases of small-farm size below subsistence-level.
(3) These economic stresses contribute to poor land-care practices -- e.g., deforestation & cultivation of marginal lands (semi-arid, hillsides, drained wetlands) previously under perennial vegetation, overstocking & over-grazing of livestock, abandonment of soil-conserving techniques (berms, contour-plowing, fallowing, windbreaks, crop-rotations, and legume cover-crops), increase of farm-size above internal nutrient-cycling capacity, increased use of herbicides & pesticides, over-use of slow-recharge aquifers, and the use of ‘one-size-fits-all’ farming practices not suited to a particular field/farm/region (e.g., plowing Great Plains, irrigating deserts).
(4) These poor land-use practices contribute to soil loss & degradation – e.g., storm-water erosion from tilled fields, wind erosion, land-slides from deforested slopes, nutrient depletion, organic-matter depletion & decreased water-holding capacity, stream & riverbank erosion from more rapid storm run-off, salinization from over-irrigation of semi-arid soils, build-up of toxins in soil, and collapse of ecosystems within agricultural soils.
…and then we (tragically) return back to the start of the cycle as soil loss & degradation leads to even (1) lower yields. And on and on and on, in a positive feedback loop -- to the part where scrawny goats are licking barren rocks.
There are, of course, additional feedbacks and interconnections conceivable in real life. A fully fleshed-out diagram of the cycle could get VERY messy.
One example: Reduced agricultural yields (and the resulting high prices and scarcity) can lead to general economic/social/political stresses (e.g., failure of credit systems, rioting & social upheaval, war, breaking of supply chains) that can cascade back to economically stress the agricultural sector and accelerate the overall cycle.
Another example: Poor land-care practices can lead to a host of more general biotic-impoverishing (and food-reducing) environmental degradations in addition to soil-loss – e.g., species extinctions from agricultural expansion, siltation of rivers, dams, and estuaries, chemical contamination of drinking water, dead zones off the coasts.
And there are many other ways to get on the spiral in first place, aside from just a climate disruption. Indeed, you can hop on the spiral at any of the four ‘stops.’ For example, unwise political decisions can initiate unwise land-use practices (see Dust-Bowl era US, 1960’s-era USSR, present-day Brazil, etc.) and the ensuing spiral.
And so on.
THE WORLD WILL BE A WORSE PLACE ONCE YOU HAVE PASSED ON
So while the web of social/political/economic/environmental/agricultural interactions is mind-numbingly messy in real life, I think the integrity of the general model holds. The positive-feedback, land-abuse cycle of annual agriculture (described above) seems to be a valid model for explaining why our annuals-based agricultural adventures (a.k.a. civilizations) have ALWAYS ended tragically. Every…single…one.
In fact, the inevitable implosion of annuals-based agriculture is as close to a universal principle as you’ll ever see in the messy chronicles of human history.
Of course, it doesn’t happen the exact same way every time. Depending on various factors (technology used, soil type, climate, socio-economic pressures, etc.), it may take anywhere from a few years to many centuries for the land to be exhausted to the point of human extirpation – but again, degradation, eventual mass-abandonment of the land, and long-term biotic impoverishment is guaranteed EVERY TIME a civilization goes down the annuals-based road.
The bottom line is this: You start down the road of annuals-based agriculture and the gradual wasting of life-giving biological capital has begun. Your days as a civilization are numbered and the world will be a worse place once you have passed on.
How’s that for an epitaph? Not exactly inspiring, huh?
ANNUALS ON THE RAZOR'S EDGE
So having savagely excoriated the growing of annual crops, I think I should at least briefly address the times and places where annual agriculture has NOT been destructive – where it has even (for a time at least) helped to BUILD biological capital.
Because there are scores of historical (and current) examples of people NOT screwing up the Earth with annuals. Witness the skillfully tended Far-East landscapes of F.H. King’s ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’, the mixed annual-perennial “cultura promiscua” of the early Roman era, Gene Logsdon’s small-scale grain raising, Carol Deppe’s ‘resilient gardening’, Eliot Coleman’s intensive organic production, my annual veggie garden (http://www.misty-acres-farm.com/), etc., etc.
In other words, it IS possible to do annuals right. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. The problem here is that it’s MUCH easier to do it wrong. And the consequences of doing it wrong are both dire and essentially permanent on the human civilization time-scale.
“Doing it right” requires a tenuous combination of skill, self-discipline, long-term economic/political/social stability, and maintaining the proper smallness of scale to ensure essentially closed nutrient cycling. Consider a partial list of “inconvenient” things you need to keep doing year-in and year-out to avoid slipping into the land-abuse spiral with annuals: locally-adapted crop-rotations with legumes, regular manuring, strict maintenance of berms and terraces on even mildly-sloped land, extended fallowing periods, alternating relatively thin strips of annuals with perennials, a strict avoidance of deforesting the seductively-beckoning hillsides.
Such sound and virtuous measures can and have been implemented for years, decades, and even centuries. But…then they broke down. Every time. It’s just TOO easy to fall off the good-practices wagon in this crazy mixed-up world. Humans are too fallible. The weather (increasingly) is too uncertain. Gravity is too universal. The Second Law is too relentless and unforgiving.
Once you drop it, an egg doesn’t un-break. Once you fall off the ‘good-practices’ wagon of annuals-based agriculture, topsoil doesn’t pick itself up off the sea floor and scamper back up to your cornfield in time for planting season. It’s gone.
In this sense, any civilization following the annuals-based path is very much walking on the razor’s edge of non-reversible disaster. Once the path of soil tillage and annuals-based agriculture is chosen by a civilization, it is only a matter of time before ‘something goes wrong’ and the land-abuse spiral is initiated – e.g., enter severe economic down-turn, drought, war, chaotic revolution, wave of migration & social upheaval, unwise national agricultural policies, natural disaster, industrial disaster, etc., etc., etc. Take your pick.
Every year is a roll of the dice. Every growing season. Every storm. Every drought. Every recession. Every regime change.
…And we have a winner! …Or rather, a loser!
A MOST INAPPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY
So I think, at this point, we’re forced to make a pretty darn uncomfortable admission (a la Wes Jackson): The suite of technologies that comprises annuals-based agriculture – that crown-jewel of human ingenuity, those strokes of genius that separated us from the beasts – was, is, and forever will be just a flat-out bad idea as the main food source for a civilization.
The plow, the disc, the harrow. Those rolling fields of corn, beans, wheat, and rice. -- Bad ideas, all of them.
And now consider this: Technologies that are just flat-out inappropriate for the human species on this planet tend to have some things in common – they’re fast, they’re powerful, they initially seem to be almost magical in the “making life easier” department, …and they all release seven kinds of hell on us when the biophysical-consequence chickens come home to roost.
Our ignorance is too great, our inherent weaknesses and flaws as a species too numerous, and the workings of the world too complex for technologies that work too fast on too big of a scale. Mistakes happen…and then they compound. Such technologies turn us, effectively, into toddlers with loaded machine guns.
Rat-a-tat-tat…Hey, gimme that!!...Rat-a-tat-tat-tat…Good lord!!....Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat….Oh, the humanity!!!!...
In this vein, permit me to raise one more objection to annuals-based agriculture: In addition to the locked-in fate of annuals-based agriculture to degrade the land (via the heretofore-discussed Land Abuse Spiral), there is something about the “speed” of annuals-based agriculture that introduces another unfortunate side-effect for our species. -- Namely, annuals are just too darn FAST.
Cut the trees, plant the crops amongst the stumps, and collect the bounty. A one-year agricultural yield increase of many, many fold over the hunting and gathering yield of the same land. Instant energy = instant population explosion. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the 10,000-year story of our species’ experiment with annual agriculture.
The phenomenally fast rate-of-return – one season and you get a yield – has certainly been a significant driver in our yeast-like population explosion over the past 10,000 years. It’s just too darn EASY to grow human population when you get this sort of rapid energy-increase feedback from annual crops. It takes too much discipline and luck for us NOT to screw up eventually – for us NOT to overpopulate like yeast in a bottle.
So permit me this analogy: Annuals are the original ‘fast-food’ -- seductive, immediately-rewarding, and prone to both degrade and rapidly expand your biomass. The short-term payback of actual ‘fast foods’ trick us into eating too much. The short payback time for the annual crops tricks us into f***ing too much – bringing on overpopulation and the ensuing land-abuse spiral before you can say, “Hey, just LOOK at all these kids!”
Lacking the consistently-engaged, higher-order mental capabilities that humans do not (and will never) possess, it’s just too easy to overshoot carrying capacity on a diet of fast-return (but ecosphere-diminishing) annual crops. So we overshoot. …Time and time and time and time again.
I suppose this theme could be developed more, but I think I’ve made a sufficient case for the following general statement: Annual crops are an inappropriate technology. We can’t HELP but misuse them, and the consequences of their misuse are both dreadful and unforgivable. Their use must be strictly controlled and viewed as potentially dangerous to our well-being. We must find a better way.
THE PERENNIAL IMPERATIVE
Now, I say ‘ouch’ here because, to most people, saying that the widespread use of annuals is bad for us and we need to find a better way is like saying, “Oxygen is bad for us. We must find a better way.” In other words, it’s inconceivable to most people – even many ‘progressives’ in the alternative agriculture movement – that we could or should ever move to something beyond an annuals-based agriculture. Amber waves of (annual) grains foreva!
“…But, but, but …we just need to do annuals RIGHT!” “The change you advocate is too radical! “The consumers won’t go for it!”
But looking ‘big-picture’ here, we really have no choice -- especially if we introduce morality into the equation.
Because, if the biological potential of the Earth inevitably becomes degraded with each go-round of the annual-agriculture carousel, can we maybe see where this is eventually going? Can we extrapolate the trend-line here – even tentatively?
And are we really OK resigning ourselves to the inevitable diminishment of the planet? Is that the only moral and physical legacy we can hope to achieve? Are starving, rock-licking goats forever to be the final stage of human succession?
I propose that – in the spirit of Wendell Berry’s agrarian sensibilities, Wes Jackson’s “nature as measure”, Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”, and Dan Allen’s “I Want My Daughter to Have a Life Worth Living Ethic” – maybe we should try something else.
And that something else, of course, is the perennial-based agriculture conceived, advocated and enacted by the permaculture movement, Wes Jackson’s The Land Institute, Wendell Berry, Sir Albert Howard, J. Russell Smith, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and scores of historical experiments in perennials that were snuffed out by the seductive poison of the annual-crop expansion.
Why is it so hard for us to renounce agricultural suicide?
When will we let ourselves learn from the people who already have renounced it and want to show us how?
When will it be too late?
THE PERENNIAL TRANSITION: JUST PLANT IT!!
Now, this has been a rather long essay and you’ve all been very patient with me. Thank you. So here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: Let me now describe exactly how the perennial transition will work.
It’s simple, we just need to…ummm...we need to…well...hmmmm…maybe…
OK, I don’t know -- I admit it. …Well, at least not the details.
But for the host of physical and moral reasons discussed so far, we MUST make the transition -- and I can guarantee that we WON’T make the transition at all it if we don’t try. And so, despite our ignorance, we need to try. So let’s try. …Fine details be damned at this point!
…But we’re not totally in the dark, of course -- there ARE some ideas out there already.
For a long-term strategy at the national level, I suggest you take a look at The Land Institute’s “A 50-Year Farm Bill” (http://www.landinstitute.org/pages/50yrfb-booklet_7-29-09.pdf). They present a well-reasoned plan for transforming the current 20:80 perennial:annual mix of US agriculture to an 80:20 perennial:annual mix over the next 50 years. And while you’re at it, check out ALL the publications at The Land Institute’s website (http://www.landinstitute.org/).
The only thing I’d advocate for in regards to their plan is the possible expansion of already-existing perennial tree crops and vegetables for the more well-watered regions of the US. As just one example among many, chinese chestnuts have a nutritional composition very similar to corn, and when a FULL accounting of energy, resource, and environmental costs are included the carbohydrate yields may be comparable. And of course, as discussed previously in this essay, from a long-term physical and moral standpoint, there is no comparison at all.
And of course, I’d highly recommend exploring the complete works of both Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry -- as well as the now-voluminous permaculture literature (maybe start with http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore). Learn the science and art of perennial crops. Learn the ecological principles and practical considerations of planting a food forest (or food prairie…or food savannah…) in your back yard (or back 40).
But more than anything else, you just need to start DOING it. Start planting perennial food crops wherever and whenever you can. For the past ten years, I’ve been experimenting by planting dozens of types fruit and nut perennials – hundreds of trees/bushes/vines in total – to find out what sorts of things work in my area. I plant them in my yard, in my sheep pasture, in the yards of near-by relatives, in my annual-veggie garden, on township-owned land (via the community garden) – wherever I can! And in the past few years I’ve been experimenting with a dozen or so species (and counting) of perennial vegetables. Again, wherever I can!
As noted previously, perennial crops are the original ‘slow food’, so you’ll need to start your experimenting NOW. i.e. Don’t wait until you have a masters degree in permaculture design and have memorized the genus and species of each perennial crop. – Just learn some basics about your soil and the plants’ natural histories and toss those babies in the ground to see what you get. Watch them closely. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
But try SOMETHING.
And let’s try to get off this land-abuse spiral. I think this whole planet’s getting’ a little dizzy, no?
Editorial Notes: From the author: I'm a high school Chemistry teacher in NJ. I'm also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer. You can contact me at email@example.com.