Sunday, March 08, 2009

Rebecca Hosking: Farms Without Oil using Practical Permaculture.

Rebecca Hosking is well known as a wildlife photographer and journalist, and also for her campaign against plastic bags. Modbury, in Devon, is the first plastic bag-free town since, at her instigation, all 43 traders there pledged not to sell them or give them away to customers for a minimum of 6 months [1]. It was Hosking's experience in photographic wildlife that spurred her to this campaign stance, having witnessed first hand the plight of albatrosses strangled by plastic, and dolphins and seals struggling to live, wrapped in plastic and parcel tape. I confess I was only vaguely aware of this effort and her name was brought to my attention recently through a TV documentary [3], set on the Devon farm of her formative years, which addresses the issue of how we are going to feed everyone in the absence of cheap oil. I made some notes during the programme and I see that she published a text about it in The Daily Mail newspaper, as referred to below [2].

In summary, practical permaculture, involving reconstitution and preservation of natural habitat, including hedgerows, where there is biodiversity and interacting "layers" of flora and fauna that pass down nutrients between levels, and bugs and earthworms that naturally till the soil, result in a fertile and high-yielding crop ecosystem, that is more productive than conventional agriculture; and all of this without oil or other artificial energy inputs. One day a week's worth of harvesting and around 10 days a year of maintenance is all that is necessary to keep such a system going, rather than the drudgery of farming that was the case before cheap oil. I grew up in agricultural regions, first of South Wales and then the English West Country (Gloucester) and my memory of farming and farmers is that even with oil, theirs was a life of comparative slog.

One drawback is that cereals cannot readily be produced by this means, and so a change of diet to one richer in fruit and vegetables is also necessary. Hosking notes that she had always thought of hedgerows as being simply divides between fields, and indeed that was my view too. I remember my first flight in a plane and seeing the English countryside is as though someone had drawn lines of division between the different fields, as their various individual hues and shades seemed to confirm; almost like a watercolour patchwork. However, the hedgerows not only provide habitat for birds who add a contribution of nitrogen through their droppings to the ecosystem, but are crop-productive entities in their own right - a kind of vertical field. I tend to think of the majority of arable land in the sense of flat fields, with occasional trees here and there almost as a kind of garnish; yet in reality, the most fertility is found when the landscape is effectively a forest (as most of Britain once was until the trees were cut-down to make ships and charcoal for smelting iron) with occasional clearings cut through it.

Farming has undergone a revolution during the past century, especially after WWII, as driven mainly by cheap energy in the form of oil-based fuel and chemical fertilizers. This has profoundly changed the shape of the countryside. Life on a small farm prior to then was indeed a life of drudgery. Even organic farms depend on oil, and for the reasons of imminently running short of cheap oil and potentially the effect of burning fossil carbon fuels on climate change, we are going to have to do without them or with far less of them. Colin Campbell is an oil industry insider and expert and is it his opinion that the break-year was 1981 when the world began to use more oil than it found new oil. Indeed, less and less new oil has been discovered during the past 40 years.

The precise date of peak oil doesn't matter so much, but we need to face the inevitability of a 2% annual decline in oil production. However, the present curb in new oil development infrastructure means that the decline could be a lot worse than this, and a 9% fall is one scenario that has been suggested, which means effectively a collapse of everything that depends on oil within a short time of a few years. All in all we need to act now.

Our dependence on oil and gas may be illustrated by the familiar ham sandwich, as normally provided in a pristine plastic wrapper. There is diesel needed to run the tractors that harrow the land, and dig seed in to grow grain to feed the pigs on. Then there are chemical fertilizers and pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, all of which are made from natural gas. Once the grain is harvested, it is dried using big heaters, powered probably by electricity made from natural gas, or they are gas-heaters themselves. To make the ham the pig eats around half a tonne of grain per year, and to complete the sandwich the salad is either flown-in from elsewhere in the world or produced in a heated greenhouse. It is then driven miles in a refrigerated lorry. The plastic package is made from oil and takes fossil energy to produce.

The Soil Association are rightly concerned about not only the state of our soil but of agriculture more generally, and predict there will be an energy famine by 2013 at the latest. i.e. by 2013 we will no longer be able to make as much energy as we will demand to maintain the status quo. It is thought that by 2013 Britain's energy account will be in the red to the tune of £500 billion, but if there is not enough energy available in any case, it is not simply a matter of whether we can pay the bill or not.

So, the question is, how can we farm - feed everybody - without oil? Richard Heinberg, author of the aptly entitled The Party's Over, with a nice piece of cover-art where someone is holding a fuel-gun to his head with the last drops of oil dripping from it, in an implied act of suicide, thinks we have left it too late to find alternatives and that all forms of renewable energy can't match the amount of oil we use at 30 billion barrels a day. Pretty well this is also my conclusion, as you have read through the workings of these articles. I began writing this blog in a spirit of optimism, assuming that we could do without nuclear power, and that all our energy could be provided using wind, wave, biofuels and whatever else, but I now think we will need all forms of energy we can get our hands on to tide us over the very difficult transitional period when we adapt and learn to use far less energy. Either way, by design or default, we will end up living entirely differently from how we do today. It is not a matter of "going-back" since that small-farm agrarian lifestyle was miserable and soulless for the majority who had to live it, but a localisation of our interests, economies and activities to do more with less and maybe feel a reconnected sense with one another and with nature. Otherwise a lot of us are going to die.

Currently, it takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy. The Green Revolution, that has confounded the Malthusian predictions that world population would outstrip our capacity to grow enough food to feed it, is underpinned by cheap energy, particularly from oil. Genetically Modified (GM) crops depend as much on oil as any other - you can grow more on the same area of land but this requires a commensurate increase in the input of fertilizers and fuel for farm machinery. If there is an energy famine, the United States and Australia could collapse as food exporters, and cause world famine and huge price rises in what food is available. Most of the skills in how to farm without fossil fuels have been forgotten: a good example of this the the series Victorian farm, shown on B.B.C. 2 recently. Here a team of three spent a year living and farming as Victorians, and the roles are rather traditional: Ruth Goodwin looks after the cooking, the housework - it takes practically the full week to do all the washing and ironing - and the poultry, including killing them when their time is up; while the two men learn to plough with heavy horse, build a pig-sty, harvest the crops and hay and between the three of them they do everything using at best hand-operated technology which was an innovation of Victorian engineering, hugely labour-saving than without them, but still all heavily manual.

I watched this series in wonder, but with the simmering sense of fear that we might have to return to that way of life, and if so, how could we cope with relearning so many forgotten skills, and indeed all the hard manual work. It is work for young men, at best, and the average age of a British farmer is now 60. The Victorian equivalent of a tractor was the heavy horse, so called because they weigh up to one ton and are powerful but amiable beasts. A modern tractor has a power equivalent to 400 horses, while in pre-oil times they had at most (if they could borrow another for very hard work) two horses. Indeed, the present level of energy consumption around the world, at 18 TW is equal to 22 billion slaves (the world population is 6.7 billion) working around the clock.

The farming industry has been left to die in the U.K., and the country imports around 40% of its food - brought in using oil-powered transport. The cost of such carriage can only increase and ultimately fail, as oil prices rise inexorably. There are only 150,000 farmers left in the U.K., and as noted, with an average age of 60 years. Animals need to be brought in in winter otherwise they destroy the pasture. To feed them hay needs to be harvested and this is the biggest use of energy on a small farm. At Fordhall farm in Shropshire, the cattle are kept out all though the winter, where they graze with very little in the way of additional feed being needed for them. This rendered the brother and sister team Charlotte and Ben Hollins who run the farm, almost immune to the recent oil price shocks that hit the rest if the industry hard. Their trick is to use a range of grasses natural to the area and which in combination make the land surface tough, so that it is something like a wild prairie and able to withstand the constant pummelling by the animals hooves during the winter. Choosing the best kinds of grass is an empirical matter, and whatever works best for a region is the one to select. Other kinds of grass will fit with another area: again, local knowledge is likely prove indispensable, probably in old farming records.

Their father, Arthur Hollins, a lifetime farmer, recognised that the woodland on the farm was much richer in wildlife than the fields he cultivated, leading him to believe that ploughing destroys essential nutrients in the soil by exposing them to sunlight. As Hosking notes:

"The flocks of gulls and crows squabbling behind the plough for worms and beetles is just a childhood memory for me. Today, the birds don't follow the plough because the soil is dead and there is nothing for them to eat.

"The only way modern agriculture can get away with killing the life in the soil is through the another use of fossil fuel - by turning it into chemical fertilizer containing nitrates, phosphates and potash."

At least 96% of all food grown in Britain relies on farming methods that use synthetic fertilizer, without which the soil lacks enough nutrients for anything to grow in it, and without ploughing the soil is not aerated. This seems like a stalemate situation until rather than a conflict with nature, lessons are drawn in harmony with the natural world, which was lush 10,000 years ago before humans began ploughing fields. That earthworms are able to till and aerate soil was known to Charles Darwin, and that they have done so for millions of years. Forests are able to flourish without the agricultural impact of humans, because they rely on a natural fecundity which is created by billions of microbes (bacteria), fungi, animals, birds and plants. This is the importance of biodiversity: an interconnected, holistic symbiosis of living organisms. Before the fifteenth century, most of Britain was forest-land, and most if the energy expended in preserving modern agriculture is to hold it in an artificial bubble; from returning to its natural forested state.

Chris and Lyn Dixon have a permaculture smallholding ("Forest garden") in Snowdonia, on which they are able to produce all the fruit, vegetables and meat they need, and even the fuel to cook it. The site looks like a set of small clearings in a mass of woodland, in reverse of what we normally now think of as the layout of a farm, with clumps of trees surrounded by fields. A natural woodland is like having half a dozen fields stacked one on top of the other. It works on different levels: shrub, etc., fruit trees, tree canopy, which recycles nutrients - e.g. nitrogen in leaf litter, beneficial fungi and root systems. It is reckoned that 10 people can be fed per acre (25 per hectare), or about double that by conventional agriculture. Cereals can't be grown and so it will be necessary to adapt our diet to other foods: nuts grow on trees, as in chestnuts and hazelnuts at a yield of 2 tonnes/acre which is a similar yield to wheat although from a nutritional standpoint, nuts are similar to rice. For the U.K. to become self-sufficient we need to eat less meat.

Gardening with hand tools is more energy effective (and labour intensive) and raises five times as much food on a given area in a small garden than is produced on the same area of open field. It is likely that a preponderance of small plots will take the place of fields as the latter decline in the face of a loss of oil and natural gas supplies. An analogy can be drawn with the "digging for victory" campaign of World War II, with its allotment gardens. Overall, we need more farmers, otherwise we will starve. There are just 150,000 left now and we will need around 11 - 12 million, i.e. every family will be involved rather than just those running a collection of industrial-scale farms.

Rather than asking the question, could permaculture feed Britain, it is more salient to ask whether conventional agriculture can. The answer to the latter in the long run, is no, because it depends so utterly on oil and gas, and so the only course of action is to try permaculture. It takes a long time for soil to regenerate, but if left to its natural state it does. Every plant is important in some way: e.g. bracken collects potash, birch encourages phosphate recycling through the ecosystem. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are all circulated through the system by nature - animals, including worms - and so no energy input is necessary. Some creatures help with pest control whole others control drainage and others pull up nutrients from the soil; all are important in this symbiosis of biodiversity. Birds that eat insects and seeds accumulate phosphates which are returned to the soil in their droppings thus eliminating the need for rock phosphate fertilizers, world supply of which peaked, incidentally, in 1988.

According to Richard Heinberg, "The dominant demographic trend of the 21st Century is going to be re-ruralisation (or de-industrialisation). That is not to say that the cities will disappear, but the proportion of people involved directly in food production is going to increase. We will also need a lot more full-time farmers - otherwise what are we going to be eating?"

If we dug for victory during the German U-boat blockade in World War II, there's no particular reasion we can't do it again in the face of a war against declining oil.

Will homo sapiens (as his name implies) be wise enough to survive.

Related Reading.
[3] BBC 2 broadcast, Natural World. A farm for the Future. Friday, 20th February 2009, broadcast 20.00.


Unknown said...

what a wonderful programme, how about a repeat and also show us, the public, how we can follow suit.
Finally you have shown everyone something I have always respected, farmers.
As in all walks we miss out on the gems of life, concentrating on the poor examples.

Well done Rebecca.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Yes, indeed, well done to her! The programme was well crafted and certainly opened my eyes.

I ha become rather despondent about the likelihood of high-tech solutions to the peak oil/energy crisis but here it is ... regenerative agriculture/ permaculture. Let nature do the work for us.


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