Michael Pollan on Deep Agriculture

I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Long Now talks.  Thoughtful and intelligent people, usually talking about things I happen to think are important, and interesting.  I almost feel like it’s a re-invention of the oratory form.  I’m glad they’ve gone to the extra effort of doing a high quality production, with decent microphones, and well illuminated speakers in front of a dark background, multiple camera angles and only occasional (but necessary) cuts to the slides on screen.  Not all thoughtful and intelligent people are good orators, but I guess I’m willing to put up with some unnecessary “um” and “uh” syllables thrown in if the ideas on offer are good enough.

Michael Pollan gave a recent talk, unsurprisingly to a full house (it’s SF after all), entitled “Deep Agriculture“, which was largely, but I think not entirely, a synthesis of his previous books.  The first point he made was that America’s healthcare costs, our industrialized agricultural system, climate change and the ultimately limited supply of fossil fuels are really all part of the same system of issues.

We spend roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the twenty nations which have longer life expectancies than we do.  A significant portion of that excess spending is on chronic “diseases of the rich” which are intimately linked to diet: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.  At the same time, we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food than any other nation in the world, and probably any other nation in history.  If our cheap diet is generating high healthcare costs, then it isn’t really all that cheap.

It’s become an often quoted statistic that for each calorie we ingest, on the order of 10 calories worth of fossil fuels were burned.  Pollan makes the point that actually, all these calories are solar.  All these chemical bonds from which we extract our heterotrophic living were ultimately been formed by photosynthesis.  The only difference is when that sunlight fell to Earth: was it this year, or was it in the Carboniferous?  In the fullness of time, our diet will come to depend on this year’s sun.  No matter how much we (or others) might like and profit from the current system, it will end, because we’re using up our long-stored sunlight.  Maybe this change will be forced in 50 years or maybe 500, but it will have to change someday (barring the creation of some kind of electrochemical synthesis process allowing us to take massive amounts of nuclear power and use it to directly build food molecules… but that just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me).  There are a variety of reasons why, given the inevitability of this problem, we might choose to deal with it sooner rather than later.  The forced transition probably wouldn’t be particularly enjoyable, and on top of that, there’s the fact that we’re currently altering the composition of our atmosphere by combusting these fuels, and polluting our soils, rivers and oceans with the resulting fertilizer and pesticide effluents and salts.

He thinks that it is entirely possible to do things differently, and suggests several changes.  First, getting animals and plants back together on the farm.  Instead of having CAFOs that create vast unmanageable cesspools filled with high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other “pollutants” separate from our industrial monocultural factory farms, onto which we pour vast quantities of “fertilizers” having high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus and other “nutrients”… why not make it a closed loop?  Okay okay, now, I know this doesn’t sound like any kind of amazing, groundbreaking idea.  Actually it seems pretty obvious, but we’re not doing it.  In most cases, we’re not even really making much of an effort to try.  Ultimately there isn’t really any possibility of “running out” of these nutrients, if we keep them cycling.  We’re not capable of creating or destroying nitrogen or phosphorus, or potassium, or calcium or iron or any of the other most basic nutrients that our crops need, but if we want to re-use them, we do need to stop throwing them in the ocean as agricultural runoff or the effluent from our sewage treatment plants (for entropic reasons, it’s hard to get them out of the ocean once they’re there).

He also thinks that it’s likely part of the solution will be either making farming more labor intensive than it is today, or making our mechanization much smarter and more adaptive (e.g. What would a mechanized harvester for a Mayan beans+corn+squash planting look like?)  Either of these options probably involves food becoming more expensive.  Thankfully he’s not just looking backward at some kind of romantic Tuscan pastoral existence.  Whatever strategies we come up with for making our agricultural systems sustainable need to be able to scale massively, and feed billions of people (at least in the short run… I do still hope we can get the population down to much less precarious numbers over the next couple of centuries without a catastrophe).  They need to do the same kinds of things (water management, nutrient cycling, soil preservation, resilience against pests and diseases) that our ancestors were largely forced to do by virtue of their level of technological power level and depth of scientific understanding, and which we’ve been able to temporarily get away without doing, but there’s no reason to think that doing those things well necessarily means doing them the way they have been done.  We understand plants and animals and soils and chemistry much better today than anybody 500 years ago could have imagined possible, even if we still have only a very tentative understanding of how these complex things work together as a system.  We can do sustainable agriculture more intelligently and more productively today than anyone ever has, if only we put our minds to it.  Therein lies the problem.

There are several ways we might go about “putting our minds to it” today, alone or in combination, and none of them have yet really been brought to bear on the problem, because it is not seen as imperative.  As with climate change and water, it is a problem of the Long Now and not the next election cycle or the next quarterly report.  Currently neither our capitalistic nor our political systems are constructed in such a way as to be able to deal well with this kind of problem.  We need agricultural entrepreneurs: venture funding and startup companies, running thousands of novel farming experiments, finding out what works, and what doesn’t, and what the real potential of closed-loop agriculture is.  For instance, what are the economics of growing produce in greenhouses in the northeast, heated, watered, and carbon-dioxified by the waste heat, emissions, and coolant water from a natural gas fired power plant?  What combination of water, carbon, and transportation costs would be required to make that a viable business model?  How does that compare with current costs?  How does it compare with the real (unsubsidized) costs of water in, and transportation from the Imperial Valley?  The closest things we have today are people like Joel Salatin on the Polyface farm in rural Virginia, and Will Allen at Growing Power in urban Milwaukee, but agriculture is very capital intensive, meaning that generally if a farmer runs an experiment one year, and it doesn’t work (and anybody in science will tell you, generally, experiments don’t work.  Trial and error is mostly error — and that’s okay), they run the risk of being wiped out, with insufficient revenue to turn over into next year’s production.  There are good reasons to be conservative as a farmer.

Additionally, we’ve actively structured our ag policy so as to discourage many kinds of experimentation.  As Salatin recounts at length in his book, Everything I Want to do is Illegal, deviation from the expectations of the agricultural regulators is not taken to kindly.  Long ago California’s congressional delegation successfully lobbied for provisions in the farm subsidy laws which prohibit any land which has received agricultural subsidies from being re-allocated to growing fruits and vegetables.  This is interstate protectionism.

And then there are the incumbents within agribusiness, who are already turning a fine profit with it the way it is, thank you very much.  As with the incubent energy interests and scientific publishing, those whose busineses grew up in the immediate past are always in a better position to influence both the market and the relevant government policies than the new upstart, irrespective of whether the new business model might be a little better today, were the two options able to compete on even footing.  Eventually in some cases the new business model takes over because the differential becomes too large to maintain, regardless of the market or political power the incumbents wield, but in capital intensive industries, this kind of ouster is especially difficult, and often only comes when the innovation being proposed involves a massive reduction of capital intensivity… like the elimination of printing and distribution costs for newspapers.

Add to these difficulties the fact that many of the current initiatives in sustainable agriculture are focused on processes rather than products, on knowledge or information, instead of material goods.  A mountain of ammonium nitrate is a completely rivalrous good.  If I’m using it to fertilize my field, then you aren’t.  Industrial capitalism thrives on this property of material goods.  You can’t “pirate” pesticides, because the bulk of their worth is bound up in their material existence.  You certainly could pirate Joel Salatin’s farming practices, and I suspect he would encourage it, but it predictably makes industry wary of getting into the “process” business.  If there’s no way to ensure exclusive ownership, the potential for profits as a result of coming up with a better process is dubious.  This is both a blessing and a curse: improved processes can scale quickly and without limit, but the potential for piracy discourages investment.  This is separate from the question of IP and GMOs, which Pollan also touched on briefly.  He isn’t categorically opposed to genetic engineering, but thinks that so far industry has primarily used it as a tool for market manipulation, and ultimately control, which is not productive in the context of this discussion.

I’ll be interested to see what else Pollan has to write about food.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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