May 27, 2011

Toward A Sustainable and Democratic Agriculture


What’s the real nature of our agricultural system? As this paper argues, “Agriculture was not designed to be sustainable.” It was designed to support colonial and later corporate empires. This is why it has always emphasized maximum commodity production.
That’s why this is true: 

But those seeking to ensure food production in a post-oil future must first explicitly acknowledge that agriculture was never designed to be sustainable – not ecologically, not economically, and not socially sustainable, at least for primary producers. It would be a coincidence of miraculous proportions if agriculture would be sustainable, simply because it was designed to do things which are incompatible with sustainability. Thus, efforts to adjust, refine, or otherwise tweak contemporary agriculture to sustain productivity are starting from a flawed design. 

Once again we see that reformism cannot work, because the problems we have are not the result of “abuses” of an otherwise sound system. We’d be trying to reform something which is structurally flawed. To promote on a large scale the kind of agriculture which does not, for example, export massive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus generating hideous environmental problems, is to promote not a reform but a revolutionary transformation.
You can’t render something sustainable which was designed to be unsustainable. As steady-state economy guru Herman Daly puts it, if something’s designed to be an airplane, you’re not going to be able to retrofit it as a helicopter in midflight. As they say, “You can’t get there from here.”
For agriculture, the goal is a transformation to post-oil production. It will have to be relocalized and decentralized. Food markets have to return to their natural local/regional basis. We’ll be unwinding much of the processing infrastructure. Organic production will be necessary but not sufficient, as not just farming inputs but the entire system of farming need to transform. We have tremendous work to do. Even basic research and education is in a parlous state. (Compare how Cuba was able to swiftly take advantage of longstanding research into organic production with minimal fossil fuel and other imported inputs when the collapse of the USSR cut off its oil subsidy. This was a perfect example of the right ideas already laying around, ready to be picked up. But from what I gather few outside Cuba have bothered to study what they’ve accomplished in the last 20 years.) And farmers will need to survive the entire revolutionary process.
This leads to the political implications of the transformation. Agronomy has proven that small and mid-size organic production is comparable to corporate monoculture under normal circumstances. Under conditions of adverse weather (which will become the norm as climate change progresses) organic outproduces corporate. And organic is in a far better position to maintain caloric output in the absence of cheap fossil fuels, while corporate production would immediately suffer catastrophic failure. So this establishes that we need tens of millions of small and midsize organic farms. But this cannot happen under the existing political and economic dispensation. Therefore, even if one is ideologically willing to buy into land propertarianism, on a practical level we can no longer afford such a luxury. If we want to continue eating post-oil, we have to move to a land dispensation based on food production stewardship. You will the end, you will the means.
I add that under such a dispensation, where anyone willing to work has access to the necessary land, we’ll achieve, for the first time in history, a society of fully employed autonomous and cooperative workers, all enjoying full control and use of what they produce. This economic democracy will in turn offer the most healthy environment for true political democracy to also finally come into its own.
Today’s agriculture is dependent upon the basic subsidies of cheap oil and environmental externalizations, as well as how the economically unviable farmers, really terminal sharecroppers, are carried by taxpayer subsidies. If any of these props fails, and they’ll all soon fail, the corporate system collapses.
Meanwhile, organic farmers receive almost nothing in return for the environmental (and sociopolitical) services they provide. On the contrary, they’re expected to fend for themselves amid the hostile depravity of the massively subsidized commodity system. 

if every farmer had had to absorb all of the costs routinely externalized on farms today, many common practices would be unimaginable because they would be prohibitively expensive;

and if farmers were paid for all the downstream benefits society receives from ecologically sound management, such as clean air and water, robust and functional biodiversity, and food free of pharmaceuticals, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and human pathogens, many practices common on organic farms would be ubiquitous on conventional farms as well…..

Why Will Organic Become Mainstream? Organic will predominate in the future because:

Rising energy costs will preclude continued reliance upon energy-dependent inputs. Synthetic N alone currently accounts for about 40% of the energy budget of grain crops, encouraging a shift toward biological N fixation, but also toward less extreme levels of labile N.

The rising costs of ‘fixing symptoms’ created by ecologically dysfunctional production systems will demand less intrusive, more ecologically sound approaches. For example, the weeds promoted by simple crop rotations will be viewed as a symptom of an unsound system, rather than as a problem. The solution then is not just to kill the weeds which will just reappear next year, but to strategically design rotations and other practices to narrow the weed niche.
Organic practices are designed to internalize costs of production, reducing or eliminating the off-farm impacts objectionable to society.

To illustrate the concept of internalizing costs, stockless organic horticultural farmers surveyed by Clark and Maitland (2004) actually marketed hort crops from a given field just 4 years in 10.

In effect, they sacrificed hort crop income to grow hay, grain, or other service crops to add or scavenge N, suppress weeds and pests, and improve the soil. Organic practices are designed to internalize costs which are routinely externalized by conventional farming. Organic farmers do not ask society to absorb the cost of antibiotic resistant bacteria entering the food chain (Martinez, 2009) or endocrine-disruptor impacts on stream organisms (Orlando et al., 2009) or birth defects deriving from biocide use (Winchester et al., 2009).

As reviewed by MacRae et al. (2004), EU nations subsidize ecologically sound management exactly for this reason – to pay farmers for the extra costs incurred in order to internalize costs of production. Farmers are paid for societal services beyond the market-driven premium paid by individuals. Thus, ecologically sound management will be advantaged when input costs become prohibitive, and when society rejects the costs externalized by contemporary farming. 

In addition to the practical truth of that, there’s another moral argument for the Land Recourse. Farmers, and particularly organic (or would-be organic) farmers have not been paid for their services. They’ve been robbed by the assaults and coercions of corporate agriculture. Therefore, farmers as a group are owed a vast reparation. The corporatized and otherwise enclosed land should square it. (This applies to every other kind of bankster and corporate crime; and it applies not just to practicing farmers but to all of us, insofar as we become the farmers/growers/relocalists civilization must produce.)
The wide adoption of organic production won’t depress yields even under today’s conditions, as the science has proven over and over: 

When studied systematically, however, organic yields can be quite comparable to conventional yields, particularly after the 3-5 year transition interval. In MD, USDA researchers (Cavigelli et al. 2008) reported 6-year yields in corn, soy, and wheat under conventional (no-till and chisel plow) and organic management (2, 3, and 4 (+)-year rotations). Organic corn yield in the longest rotation was 24% lower than from conventional yield, an effect which was attributed largely to insufficient N and weed control issues (73 and 23% of yield reduction, respectively). Organic soy yield was 16% lower than conventional, but wheat yield did not differ between systems.

After the transition interval, Pimentel et al. (2005) found no difference in corn yield or in soy yield between conventional and organic systems in a 21-year trial conducted in PA. Similarly, over a 9 year interval in Iowa, Delate et al. (2008) showed no significant difference in yield for corn, for soy, or for wheat yields when grown in conventional versus organic systems.

Clearly, organic management is able to provide on-farm N and pest control comparable to what is purchased off-farm in conventional systems. However, it must be noted that the longer rotations typical of organic management mean corn may be grown once in 5 or 7 years, compared to in alternate years in a typical corn-soy rotation.

Thus, total corn production in 10 years time will be much less in an organic system….

Furthermore, organic and low-input yields reportedly already surpass conventional yields in the Third World (Badgley et al. 2007). According to the UNEP-UNCTAD (2008), the issue in the third world is not ‘how to feed people’, but rather, ‘how to end poverty and hunger’. Organic farming is viewed there as an enabling or empowering vehicle for social change and development, not just a way of producing food. How you frame the question predetermines the range of possible answers. The answers to ‘how to end poverty and hunger’ are quite different from ‘how to feed the world’. 

The lower corn production is a feature of greater overall food production, as most corn isn’t grown for human food, but goes into gas tanks, to sweeten junk food, and to provide feedstock for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Replacing this complete waste of calories with sound farming methods will result in a greater net production of food for people. More on that below.
Like I said, all that referred to today’s circumstance of still relatively cheap oil and phosphorus, as well as the temporary zombification of the depleted soil with synthetic fertilizers. But none of these conditions will hold for long. We’re on Peak Oil’s “bumpy plateau” of production, but within the next few years the production decline will begin in earnest. Peak Phosphorus also looms. And the soil cannot long withstand being constantly jolted into productivity with ever-increasing applications of synthfert. (The same dynamic prevails with pesticides and herbicides, both also rapidly hitting the wall of diminishing returns, both also dependent upon cheap fossil fuels.)
The answer to questions about feeding the world is clearly that corporate agriculture will soon be unable to do so, while only relocalized organic and defossilized agriculture will be physically able to do so. As said in the final sentences of the quote I gave above, the real question isn’t physical but political. Will Food Sovereignty win its political struggle? This will decide whether or not the world will continue to eat. Food Sovereignty is physically capable of feeding the world, and nothing else is. (And as always we should remember that if Food Sovereignty wins out, we’ll be putting vast amounts of arable but unproductively hoarded land into production.)
So only decentralized organic production can be sustainable. And what is sustainability? As the paper laments, the term hasn’t received a clear definition, and has been eroded and often denuded. (See here for Walmart’s “sustainability” scam, a typical example.)
For a rigorous definition, we can start with physical facts: A sustainable system will not be dependent upon fossil fuels or global distribution networks. Nor can it be dependent upon any other input which depends upon either of these. And while so far we’ve gotten away with trashing the environment, nature’s payback is gathering force, and we won’t skate much longer. Agriculture has to exist within nature. Therefore no agricultural system is sustainable if it flouts the ways of nature, let alone assails them. But our corporate agriculture does nothing but flout and assault. So corporate agriculture is unsustainable.
I’ll go further to say that since corporate agriculture is the result of inherent corporate logic, it follows that any agriculture within a corporatist context will be unsustainable. So corporations in themselves and any economic system based upon their logic cannot coexist with our continued ability to eat.
Therefore, while it’s not clear that the moral imperative of economic democracy is part of the definition of sustainability, we reach the same conclusion by the practical route. The physical sustenance of civilization depends upon the establishment of economic democracy, including the abolition of corporations.
(I’ll add that even if that weren’t true, even if practical sustainability could in theory coexist with economic tyranny, it would have no legitimacy unless it sought accord with the goal of destroying this tyranny. Nothing is legitimate other than within this moral context. I’d say any definition of anything which isn’t subsumed in the framework of seeking democracy becomes moot, since it would then be objectively pro-criminal and unworthy of humanity.)
So we have the basic definition and facts. But the picture isn’t yet complete, since organic inputs in themselves aren’t sufficient for the transformation we need. I mentioned above how it was irrelevant that organic would produce less corn over a ten year period, because we’ll need to transform much of our cereal based agriculture to something radically different anyway.
Today’s organic agriculture is still largely based on production for the global system, often on commodity crops, and therefore is part of the metabolic rift between the land and where the waste goes (and the fact that such “waste” exists at all). It’s not even remotely as bad as corporate agriculture, but it’s still in significant ways “agriculture” as we know it. It’s not sustainable.
To complete the vision of how to feed the world, we need to apply the principle that agriculture must cooperate with nature, not fight it. In North America especially, this means moving away from large-seeded annuals like cereal commodity crops, and toward grassy perennials. This will be integrated into a system of rotating crops and pasturage. 

[E]cologically sound agriculture – including organic agriculture – will necessarily rely less on annuals and more on perennials – with a central role for grass-fed livestock. And let me re-affirm that this does not mean less vegetables, as these account for barely 2% of arable land in ON. The problem is the predominance of large-seeded annual grains, which currently occupy over half of the arable land in ON, grown largely although not solely for livestock feed to enable the confinement industry. 

Growing commodity annuals aggravates all the problems of soil nutrition, erosion, environmental toxicity, and the waste crises of the metabolic rift. Growing grasses where nature intends them to be grown will restore the natural balances and rebuild the soil. The grasses will be transformed into food for people through livestock grazing. This will more than make up for the foregone calories of cereal production, since the vast majority of what will be replaced wasn’t going to human food anyway. And since production of vegetable annuals takes up such a small portion of the land as it is, we’ll be able to maintain and increase fruit and vegetable production through sound crop rotation as part of the overall grass-based system.
So there’s a basic outline of where we need to go if we want to grow enough food to feed ourselves and if we want to establish democracy. The dual goal: We need to feed ourselves; and we need to feed ourselves. Nothing less will suffice, nothing less will be sustainable, for us physically as hominids, and for us politically as citizens and human beings. 


  1. Hi Russ,

    Great Post. I think you might find this essay posted at the “Oil Drum” of interest too.

    “Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion began 10,000 years ago”

    Go to: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4628#more

    It was written by Peter Salonius, a Canadian soil microbiologist.

    Comment by William — May 27, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    • I read that piece back when TOD first published it (and I have it printed out somewhere), but I haven’t reread it in a long time. Thanks for reminding me of it. I’ll probably get even more out of it now than I did then.

      Comment by Russ — May 28, 2011 @ 1:49 am

      • Your Welcome Russ, thank you for all your hard work that you’ve put in to this blog.

        Comment by William — May 28, 2011 @ 2:31 am

  2. Amen Russ. The article William linked by Salonius is quite good. I think at some point we are going to need to address Salonius’ claim:

    “Humanity has probably been in overshoot of the Earth’s carrying capacity since it abandoned hunter gathering in favor of crop cultivation (~ 8,000 BCE) and it has been running up its ecological debt since that time.”

    which I think basically arises from the notion that agriculture is itself inherently unsustainable. I’m still not sure what to make of this claim (I remember the first time I read that article some wags in the comments said something like “I look forward to another unsustainable 10000 years”). I think we probably need to have a clear working definition of sustainability to grapple with these questions effectively.

    The last few posts have got me thinking a lot more about land use. I think you’re right that land dispensation must underly the relocalisation of agriculture. The article you posted earlier along with Goin South’s video about the Pasadena urban homestead convinced me that it’s possible to do subsistence agriculture with relatively little land (assuming the techniques being used are sustainable). I’d been under the impression, mostly, I think, from reading Fanshen when I was younger, that subsistence agriculture was something more like farming a couple acres of millet just to have enough to feed your family that season. But if it’s possible for ordinary people to produce a thousand kg or more of produce/yr using permaculture techniques on <1 acre, I think we have reason to be optimistic. I'm not very good at sloganeering, but "an acre for everyone" is something I could get behind, that's for sure.

    I really need to do some more reading about permaculture, as well as modelling of agricultural productivity. I'd like to sort out whether or not the cities that we have push the population of particular watersheds beyond what the arable land in that region can support. I think that would give some more clues about what kinds of strategies would be most effective in the long run in particular areas.

    Comment by paper mac — May 27, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    • Hi Paper mac,

      If you found the essay written by Peter Salonius good, you should find this one fascinating.

      “The Origins of Agriculture: A Biological Perspective and a New Hypothesis” by Greg Wadley and Angus Martin. It was published in the Australian Biologist in 1993.

      Go to:

      Their hypothesis is that people took up farming (and working and slaving their life away) because they got addicted to eating annual grains.

      There is so much new information available that is not getting much attention from mainstream academic circles. The curtain is slowly being pulled back.

      “Don’t pay any attention to that little man behind the curtain!” (Scene from “Wizard of Oz”).

      Comment by William — May 28, 2011 @ 12:32 am

      • Hey William, thanks for that. I need to read that article more closely and see if I can chase up some more recent references of the pharmacological effects of cereal grains. I’m not too sure why you need to go to exorphins to justify an addiction-based explanation for the rise of agriculture, though- since mass production of alcohol and opiates was only possible with agriculture. Since opium poppies have been found at neolithic sites, and we know that they were definitely making alcoholic beverages from their crops, it seems unlikely to me that the behavioural changes associated with chronic low-dose exorphin exposure are more significant than regular exposure to substantial doses of morphine and alcohol.

        Anyway, the stuff about exorphins reducing social stress is pretty interesting, and seems like a selective advantage of agriculture over foraging- separate from the addictive qualities they may have. I’m usually a little suspicious of evolutionary reasoning without cross-phyla comparisons, though. I think there have been substantially more species with recognisable farming behaviour discovered since that article was written, and it would be interesting to see a comparison of the strategy’s fitness effects in those contexts as well.

        Comment by paper mac — May 28, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

    • An Acre for Everyone – sounds like a good place to start.

      I agree that we have excellent reason for optimism on the productivity front. All this stuff really does work, and the results are snowballing faster than we can keep up.

      This year we have two new prodcue vendors at the farmers’ market, each growing copious amounts on one acre. But because we on the committee weren’t up to speed on that, when we saw the first application listing “1” under Acreage, we thought it was a misprint. Well, we did some research (one of the things we found was the link I showed you which included the aquaculture), and we know now.

      I’ll soon post on Cuba, which is another example we need to study closely. There tremendous material there on urban production in the organoponicos, and I think they’ve worked out many aspects of the rural-urban interchange.

      For your watershed research, I don’t know what kind of resources exist in other states, but NJ’s Highlands Act included the mandate for a statewide watershed analysis, which can be found here.


      (They found as predicted that many areas are already in water deficit, and therefore fully built out from the point of view of the Act’s principles.

      Equally predictably, in practice they still look for loopholes to allow development to continue in those areas.)

      Comment by Russ — May 28, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    • Here’s a fairly recent New York Times article that could be used for the start of a case study regarding watersheds, arable land and what a particular region could support in the long run.


      This one example is probably a little too extreme, but it’s actually happening in real time.

      Comment by William — May 28, 2011 @ 6:14 am

    • Thanks William. I’ll check it out when I can next get past the paywall.

      Comment by Russ — May 28, 2011 @ 9:28 am

      • Hey Russ,

        Without trying to sound too ignorant…plus…

        I would appreciate your patience with me….please help me catch up to speed here.

        Whats a paywall? Thank you

        Comment by William — May 28, 2011 @ 10:28 am

      • Some media sites require paid subscriptions to read the content. That’s the “pay wall”.

        In the case of the NYT, they let non-subscribers read something like 20 free articles a month. Although I never go to the NYT on my own anymore and click on few lnks compared to how many I used to, still I do sometimes reach the limit in a month. (I’m surprised when I do; I never would’ve thought I’d reached 20 articles. Maybe they count each page.)

        Comment by Russ — May 28, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    • I’d agree, paper mac, that the Dervaes family story is quite inspiring.

      In case other readers would like more info, they have an information filled site (and I’ve never even been to Pasadena) here:


      I noticed Russ’s point about water use, and I’d have to agree until I see more from the Dervaes about it. It’s a big issue in Pasadena.

      Essentially, it’s the nature of our planet that something is going to be in limited supply: length of growing season, water, energy sources, natural soil nutrients (though those have almost all been depleted already). It’s gettin’ hard out there for a natural woman/man.

      But I’m not a Luddite, at least when it comes to knowledge. I’m always skeptical about technology because it’s developed and pitched with profit in mind. But the Dervaes appear to use the knowledge humans have gained about how things grow to maximize their output. We can do the same in the field of food production and elsewhere.

      It seems to me that one great key is keeping the profit motive out of it. Consider how the profit motive has corrupted–as documented by Russ’s previous essay–human agriculture so as to maximize its flaws and minimize its benefits.

      I’m hopeful about the future based on two things:

      1) Human population growth is leveling off. Part of that is the oppressive policies of China, but we see in other societies how it levels off without oppressive policies or even particularly difficult times (it was occurring prior to the present economic collapse in Europe).

      2) Results produced by intensive farmers like the Dervaes. Our ancestors relied on tradition based on rough empiricism. We do have the “scientific method” which is a useful improvement, if used honestly, for improving our techniques.

      There is no reason that given our gains in technology, that we cannot all live better except for the slaveholding one percenters who expect to live like some kind of god. It’s really only a matter of building a system that distributes the benefits of technology combined with egalitarianism, libertarianism (in the real sense of the word) and eco-awareness.

      Build it and they will come.

      Comment by Goin' South — May 28, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

      • But I’m not a Luddite, at least when it comes to knowledge. I’m always skeptical about technology because it’s developed and pitched with profit in mind. But the Dervaes appear to use the knowledge humans have gained about how things grow to maximize their output. We can do the same in the field of food production and elsewhere.

        It seems to me that one great key is keeping the profit motive out of it.

        I agree, that’s a key distinction. We can apply the knowledge we’ve gained during the Oil Age to render the post-oil age very different, politically and economically, from the pre-oil age, even though we’re likely to be back to a similar level of energy consumption.

        One of the things we’ve learned is to shun the profit motive as unnecessary and destructive.

        As for technology itself (a materialized form of knowledge), it’s less important to be a luddite or not than to recognize that under this kind of system, most technology will always be corporatized. It will be developed and deployed toward the goals of:

        1. Corporate rent extractions;

        2. Opiation and repression.

        Corporate technology is like forms of government. Lots of things may sound good in theory, if you could get heroes and saints to administer them. In practice, they’re bound to be perverted to malevolent uses. To believe in them is to disregard a basic principle of the American Revolution, that power, wherever embodied, by its very nature must assault liberty. So the citizen imperative is to keep power concentration to the absolutely necessary minimum, and be vigilant toward whatever concentration is allowed.

        Certainly allowing any concentration to operate according to the profit motive is going way beyond what’s necessary, and is a gross dereliction of vigilance.

        Comment by Russ — May 29, 2011 @ 3:03 am

      • I was rereading the recent UN Special Report on the Right to Food.

        Click to access 20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.pdf

        I’m planning a post summarizing it, in about a week or so. Within the limits of reformism, it’s excellent. It also gathers in one place all the best agroecological research from recent years, the research which proves that diversified smallholder agroecology is vastly superior to corporate agriculture in every way.

        So if anybody who hasn’t read it wants to read it for a discussion, go for it. It’s pretty short, just 21 pages, 47 short sections.

        I thought I’d get a head start because one of the sections made me think of our discussion on knowledge and technology. This is from section 38:

        Modern science combines with local knowledge in
        agroecological research. In Central America for instance, the coffee groves grown under
        high-canopy trees were improved by the identification of the optimal shade conditions,
        minimizing the entire pest complex and maximizing the beneficial microflora and fauna
        while maximizing yield and coffee quality.75 However, perhaps because such practices
        cannot be rewarded by patents, the private sector has been largely absent from this line of

        76 G. Vanloqueren and P.V. Baret, “How agricultural research systems shape a technological regime that
        develops genetic engineering but locks out agroecological innovations,” Research Policy, 38, 2009,
        pp. 971–983.

        That’s a good example of what I was getting at, here and in this post:


        Comment by Russ — May 29, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

  3. Thanks for this post, Russ.

    I’m still following the Spanish protests in the French media, because the US media doesn’t seem to be giving much coverage to this, at least to my knowledge.

    The protests have already escalated way beyond anything that happened in Wisconsin. According to the French journal Liberation, things have started to turn violent with 121 protestors injured by the police, so far.

    The following videos (with run times of 1:50 min and 1:05 min) give a pretty good idea of how tense things are between Spanish protestors and the police:


    Comment by Frank Lavarre — May 27, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    • Correction on the 121 protestors injured. That should be 121 injured, of whom 37 were police. However most of the injuries were minor and only 12 had to be taken to the hospital.

      Comment by Frank Lavarre — May 27, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

      • Thanks for sharing the videos Frank. I’d like to see those police officers get cracked in the knees with long clubs and see how they like it.

        The europeans seem to have a lot more courage than us Americans.


        Comment by William — May 27, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

    • Thanks for keeping up on that, Frank. I agree with William that so far various Europeans are showing more signs of life than Americans. (The Arabs are putting us all to shame.)

      Comment by Russ — May 28, 2011 @ 2:04 am

  4. Hey, Russ.

    Just checking in. I’ve been enjoying watching your transformation as you hone in on the issues you wish to advocate as opposed to those you wish to inveigh against. Two very different things. The juxtaposition is interesting.

    Anyway, keep up the good and HONEST work. We need more people like you.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — May 27, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    • Thanks, Tao. (I do figure my indictments are largely complete. But does the blogosphere even work that way? That’s why I linked those pages in the upper-right corner, with lists of my posts. I probably ought to distill them into short “books”.)

      This transition is a little rocky, since I don’t “know” exactly what to do yet. But it’s another case of learning by doing.

      I guess your new job’s keeping you busy, which is why you haven’t posted much lately. I hope things are going well.

      Comment by Russ — May 28, 2011 @ 2:11 am

  5. Russ, the “Organic” label has been thoroughly co-opted by the agricultural industry. The regulations needed to be certified organic are draconian and absurd. Production of organic baby greens on a “Whole Foods scale” looks almost indistinguishable from chemical production. In some cases, it’s more industrialized, more sterilized, more mechanized because of how vulnerable the plants are w/o inputs.

    It’s a shame because organic agriculture has no other appropriate label. Sustainable agriculture is preferable to me but considering the issues you raise about agriculture’s inherent unsustainable nature, it doesn’t sound appropriate.

    Natural agriculture? Balanced agriculture?

    Comment by Ross — May 29, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    • I have no problem with “sustainable”, but there too the co-opting and befogging is already advanced. Not to mention the lack of definitional clarity discussed in the piece I linked for this post.

      I’ve said before that “organic” agriculture is just a fancy name for historically normal, pre-fossil fuel agriculture.

      The term among professionals and pundits is agroecology. I use that term, but I’m not sure about its adaptability to mass messaging.

      “Balanced” is no good, since that word was a joke even before Fox News became so “fair and balanced”. I’ve considered “natural” myself.

      I’ve also considered more agitprop-ish terms like democratic agriculture, citizen agriculture. I like cooperative agriculture.

      But all those also sound like terms for the committed, not for easy assimilation by the people.

      In spite of the co-optations and erosion of standards, organic still has high name recognition and a very positive image.

      We’ll have to keep thinking about it.

      Comment by Russ — May 29, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

      • “Localized” agriculture? … or maybe better: “personal” agriculture (in that the cultivators, if not you personally, are personally known to you).

        Comment by Lidia — June 8, 2011 @ 10:02 am

      • Thanks, Lidia. I’ll give that some thought.

        Comment by Russ — June 8, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  6. “An acre for everyone”? I think we can do better.
    How about “a half-acre and a solar panel”? 🙂

    Comment by alan2102 — August 28, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    • (I was intending play off of “40 acres and a mule”; just realized that that might not have been so obvious.)

      Comment by alan2102 — August 28, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  7. democratic agriculture
    citizen agriculture
    cooperative agriculture
    localized agriculture
    personal agriculture


    First, “agriculture”. What we’re talking about is more properly horticulture (at least for most participants, most of the time). Agriculture is the cultivation of the land, or open countryside; horticulture refers to the tending of a garden — a smaller, more-personal or familial space. “Garden” itself has I think the right connotations, suggesting as it does beauty, wonder and specialness (or even paradise-like: an edenic place). I admit that “horticulture” sounds more bookish than “agriculture”, and that’s not good, but just saying.

    As for the qualifier: I’ve always like the term “vernacular”, often used by Ivan Illich (whose books IMO are must-reads, several times over). Etymologically, it refers to nativity and local-ness, and also to springtime, in particular its verdant blossoming. Colloquially (or shall we say in the vernacular!) it refers to common-ness: of the common people or folk as opposed to the elite, and low culture as opposed to “high” culture, and amateur as opposed to professional. It implies that which occurs intimately and outside the cash nexus, the “market”. It implies informality and emphasis on simple empirical practice, and trial and error, and tradition, as opposed to theory or academic nicety. It implies smallness of scale, and diversity; specificity or particularity, versus universality. It even implies counter-hegemony. And so on. All commendable. It implies a bunch of other good things, and here I defer to the master, Illich, in his essay “Vernacular Values”, well worth a careful read: http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Vernacular.html His emphasis is on speech and language, but the applicability to what we are talking about will be obvious.

    There is also a bunch of allied “vernacular” practices that have gotten so far as to merit wiki pages:

    Hence: vernacular agriculture.

    “Vernacular horticulture” is something of a redundancy, and anyway is too much of a mouthful, too obscure. “Vernacular agriculture” might also be so accused. My defense is the above: that “vernacular” this and that is becoming a commonly-used expression, even if not AS commonly as needs be — yet.


    from the Illich essay cited:

    “Vernacular is a Latin term that we use in English only for the language that we have acquired without paid teachers. In Rome, it was used from 500 B. C. to 600 A. D. to designate any value that was homebred, homemade, derived from the commons, and that a person could protect and defend though he neither bought nor sold it on the market. I suggest that we restore this simple term, vernacular, to oppose to commodities and their shadow. It allows me to distinguish between the expansion of the shadow economy and its inverse – the expansion of the vernacular domain.”



    I also love the way “vernacular” is creeping in to the literature on peer-to-peer (P2P) phenomena. I quote here a few lines from the worthy compilation “P2P Urbanism”, Nikos A. Salingaros, editor, here: http://zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/P2PURBANISM.pdf

    Emphases added:

    “Developers owning most of the land make it hard or impossible for ‘normal people’ to buy small lots and build their house; to fix the place they rent; or to have authority to fix a small part of their street. The accompanying loss of local crafts and knowledge about VERNACULAR BUILDING leads to people hiring an architect or builder and letting him loose. Since those professionals don’t know all the details of the local environment (and have in fact been trained to ignore locality), they usually create something that doesn’t quite work….”

    “Gradually, practitioners in other fields will learn about P2P-Urbanism and bring in their knowledge where appropriate. Candidates include Permaculturists (who design productive ecosystems that let humans live in harmony with plants and animals) with a deep practical understanding of Biophilia (6), advocates of VERNACULAR AND LOW-ENERGY CONSTRUCTION, and various independent or resilient communities that wish to sustain themselves ‘from the ground up’.”

    “World production of VERNACULAR ART, ARCHITECTURE, AND URBANISM tends to come from those on the Left, simply because they are less well off. But the problem here is that these same people aspire to values instilled in their minds by the globally-controlled media, and thus refuse to value what they themselves produce. They are easily manipulated in a global game of unsustainable consumerism that profits only the multinationals.”

    “[Christopher] Alexander tried to show that architecture connects people to their surroundings in an infinite number of ways, most of which are subconscious. For this reason, it was important to discover what works; what feels pleasant; what is psychologically nourishing; what attracts rather than repels. These solutions, found in much of VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE, were abstracted and synthesized into the Pattern Language about 20 years ago.”
    — cheers! Alan

    Comment by alan2102 — August 28, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    • Thanks for this suggestion, Alan. Vernacular is a term and concept that encompasses much of what I write about here. I haven’t read the Ilich, but the quotes and ideas resonate. The P2P connection is also interesting. The stuff about architecture sure rings true.

      I’ll be sure to check out these links when I get a chance.

      Don’t forget vernacular farming, and vernacular food.

      As for the technical differences between agriculture, horticulture, gardening, I’m not too concerned about it. To me the aggregate project is the relocalization of food production and distribution, as the core around which the entire economic and political transformation proceeds. The scale of particular projects isn’t as conceptually important as the unified whole. So I’ll freely use terms like agriculture, farming, gardening etc. as the context calls for (what would read best given the target audience).

      (The reason two of your comments went into moderation is because they contained more than one link.)

      Comment by Russ — August 28, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  8. The antonymic flipsides of vernacular agriculture (and democratic/local/etc. agriculture), for reference, would include:

    totalitarian agriculture [probably the best; I think Manning suggested it]
    hegemonic agriculture [I like this, too]
    industrial agriculture (or monoculture)
    oil/capital/chemical-intensive agriculture

    Comment by Alan Lewis — August 28, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  9. One more:


    Click to access suoranta_vaden_wikiworld.pdf

    page 73-4:
    “what Mary Hamilton names as VERNACULAR LITERACIES, and we
    call collaborative literacies, are literacies ‘which are not
    regulated or systematized by the formal rules and procedures
    of social institutions but have their origin in the purposes
    of everyday life’ (ibid.). Collaborative literacy practices
    develop, and are learnt informally. They are ROOTED IN ACTION,
    they develop in peoples’ critical responses to authoritarian
    regimes and are part of the local and global protests against
    the institutions of power. Hamilton (2005) describes these
    literacies as follows….”

    Comment by alan2102 — August 28, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

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