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How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming?


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How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming?

  1. 1. How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014 Prepared by: Joe Brewer Culture Designer Change Strategist for Humanity T 206.914.8927
  2. 2. Purpose of This Report In this report I want to explore the different terms people use to talk about farming practices that may or may not be helpful in addressing environmental and social concerns. A lot of words are used to frame the debate. So many that it is easy to get very confused! We are preparing future campaign actions that bridge our work on land grabs and structural debt relations—where we have seen the systematic encroachment of a corporate wealth extraction model to the food “production” of agricultural systems. Already this implies a language of factories and manufacturing processes. What other frames are at play here? How can we get to the core issues we want to address? What are the stories that need to be challenged? As we will see below, many of the important terms for different approaches to agriculture are unfamiliar to the general public. Care will be needed to make the differences explicit and walk through the logic of farming alternatives. Also, I found that the descriptors of farming alternatives tend not to map the practices themselves to larger economic and political structures. A common thread in all our work at The Rules has been to look at the rules-of-play for policy creation, business operations, social norms and values, and how all of these structures either contribute to different narratives or conceal alternative narratives. Let’s Look at A Few Frames We can start to see how nuanced the discourse is by looking at a few examples. One question we need to ask ourselves before we begin is What does humanity need from our relationships with the land? Consider this as you read the following descriptions. Regenerative Farming :: Regeneration means to grow back as when damaged tissue in the body dies off and then it grows back again. This is a process of moving from a condition of less-than-whole to a completed stage of whole-again. It refers to the process of growing back layers of soil by ending the practice of tilling that would break the soil down and keep it from replenishment. The key element of this phrase is the notion that the purpose of farming is to regrow the soil. Implied by this is the understanding that the soil was damaged in the past—the way we used to farm “broke” the soil and now we need to farm in a way that fixes (or heals) it. The principal actor here is The Healer. How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014
  3. 3. Holistic Management :: The word “holistic” evokes a situation where everything is taken into consideration and nothing is left out. As a form of management, this phrase suggests that previous approaches to decision-making were incomplete and left out important considerations. The frame semantics at play here draw attention to human agents and the decisions they make. In the context of agriculture, the Holistic Management Frame implies that past approaches only focused on a subset of important processes—actively managing the application of fertilizers to stimulate crop growth, for example, while neglecting to consider how this might deplete the nutrients in the soil. The semantic structure here is one of a Venn Diagram where “what is managed” was originally only partially overlapped with “what needs to be managed”. Implementation of a holistic management framework is to transition to a new state where the overlap between these two domains becomes complete. The principal actor here is The Manager. Organic Farming :: Use of “organic” processes to grow food that is in harmony with nature. The principal idea hear is that non-organic farming is unnatural and presumably harmful. The label gets applied to produce, meat and dairy in a grocery store—having many different meanings as consumers are marketed to in different ways. Organic food may mean healthier, with more nutrients, and free of harmful chemicals. It can also mean expensive and intended for the rich. Conflicting interpretations like these become more complicated in debates about labeling laws and lobbying influence on organic certification procedures. The principal role here is The Chemical Contaminant. Industrial Farming Techniques :: Treatment of agriculture as if it were a factory—this metaphor shapes the array of metrics (crop yield, maximal return, optimization, efficiency, etc.) that define “good” farming. Agriculture is understood to be a machine that operates according to the linear logic of compartmentalized functions and commodified outputs that were common in industrial-age manufacturing. Emphasis on specialization leads to monoculture crops that are grown to “optimize productivity” and achieve “maximal profits” for whomever owns the factory. Often this is not the farmer, who in many cases performs the role of contract laborer even on their own land due to the contractual arrangements with large agricultural corporations that are needed to implement the factory model of farming. The principal role here is The Factory Process How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014
  4. 4. Traditional Farming Techniques :: Treatment of agriculture as an idyllic way of life. This is where we get phrases like “family farm” and “pastoral peoples”. It is worth noting that a key farming implement for thousands of years has been the plow, which digs lines in the soil and turns the top layer over. This practice of tillage (or tilling) is what prepares the ground for planting. When the soil is tilled it breaks up the layers that have formed and accelerates decomposition of organic matter, releasing nutrients to the air and increasing the leakage from wind and water erosion. Over time the soil becomes less healthy if the land is worked too much. It needs to lay farrow and rest in cycles of crop rotation. Traditional farming techniques tend to deplete soils. Those regions where agriculture has been sustained for thousands of years—like the river valleys of the Ganges and Nile Rivers— are able to continue productivity across these vast spans of time because nutrients are replenished by erosive processes that grind down mountain ranges at their head waters. Regenerative farming is different from these traditional practices. The principal role here is The Land Cultivator. These frames evoke different relationships between humans and nature. One of the key frame choices we will need to make clear is between POWER OVER and COOPERATE WITH. This refers to the way humans relate to nature. Do we seek to have “power over the land” or “cooperate with it” to achieve some kind of harmony. Many of the practices in industrial agriculture are expression of a factory metaphor that seek to control and optimize nature as inputs or manufacturing processes. This can be contrasted with practices in conservation and land stewardship where farmers cooperate with the animals, soils plants, etc. to improve the health and stability of ecological systems. One metaphor that is prominent here is that of the gardener. How this plays out with livestock can go in many directions. Among the elements I find interesting to explore is whether animals are brought into cyclic processes with plants and soils or if they are presumed to operate outside of and separate from them. The research on no-tillage farming that combines polyculture crops with an integration of animals and plants suggests that an integrated (or “holistic management”) approach can be very good for food production and ecological stewardship. This is something we will need to hone and clarify before we can move forward. Unpacking Even More of the Discourse Now that we have seen some of the different frames at play (though by no means all), I want to sift through the landscape of ideas to show the rich complexities of the discourse is in its full glory. How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014
  5. 5. This is important for us because we will have to navigate this pluralistic landscape as we give form to our own narratives and push them out into the world. The phrases listed here were taken from several articles I read while preparing this report. Links are included at the end for the interested reader. They are presented in the order that I wrote them down, as I jumped from articles about the science of soil conservation to global food policy and the environmental concerns that give rise to debates about it. • “Visualizing Carbon Flow” is about making visible the hidden process of capturing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in thickening soils. People can’t see it happen and many may not know how it all works. • “Natural Farming” is a term that has vague meanings, used to suggest that agriculture can be in harmony with the workings of nature. • “Monoculture vs. Polyculture” challenges the practice of growing only one kind of crop by mimicking the way nature does it, with a diversity of species all co-existing in one place. • “Regenerate their soils” describes what farmers can do with the right management approaches. • “Allow nature to remain healthy” suggests that there is inherent intelligence in the natural world. If we get out of the way and stop creating barriers to healing, the world will do a lot of the healing work on its own. • “Interdependent System” points to the fact that everything is connected. When we treat agriculture as an interdependent system, all of the connections between human communities and land management practices become relevant and important. • “Getting my fertilizer for a profit, because I’m making it from these cows.” This statement was made in reference to moving herds of cattle as they graze and excrete waste that fertilizes the soil. The cattle can then be sold at livestock markets so that farmers get paid for their fertilizer instead of having to give money to fertilizer manufacturing companies. • “Store the carbon in the soil” refers to the carbon flow mentioned above. It reminds us that one solution to global warming is to introduce land management practices that thicken the soil, thus pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and “fixing” it in the ground. • “Feed civilization” frames the purpose of farming in our globalized world. We have to achieve food security and feed billions of people on a resource constrained planet. How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014
  6. 6. • “Only need a decade, maybe less” expresses the sentiment that soils can be regenerated to full productive health in a manageably short period of time. • “Ground soaks up the water, protects against floods” tells us that healthy landscapes do a lot more than merely provide food for us. They also provide flood protection and other ecological benefits that can be added into the mix with an integrated or holistic approach. • “It’s not how much rainfall you get, it’s how much gets into your soil.” Since droughts are becoming more common, it is important that soils absorb more rain when it does come. This is a buffering feature that healthy soils provide in addition to other protections. • “With the help of the soil, with the help of the plants“ expresses the notion that nature is helping us. We’re not working against nature. • “If they don’t get sick, they don’t need to be treated.” Cattle that are managed holistically will be healthier and less likely to need antibiotics. This reduces financial costs associated with livestock and increase resilience of the herd. • “We’re working with nature instead of against it.” A very important reframe for the food, farming, and land discourses. • “Sucking tons of carbon down into the ground” is an expression that adds weight to the idea that air has mass and gases can be turned into things that are solid. • “Healthy Soils” is a good in its own right. It is also a worthy measure of success for farming practices. These are story elements we can use to create better narratives in our campaigns. Others could readily be added to the list. I chose these as they each represent a way to think about the issues that are involved in 21st Century agriculture. Possible Conceptual Roadblocks During a strategy meeting last week we talked through some of the challenges that will come through in a campaign about ecological and societal solutions to global problems that come through farming practices. Among them were the notions that it’s too good to be true and that the evidence isn’t conclusive. Arguments like these will come up when the information we convey challenges a belief that someone already has in their mind. We will need to anticipate these forms of resistance and work with them as they arise. How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014
  7. 7. There is also the challenge of introducing the concept of the commons as a pooled resource shared by everyone that needs to be collaboratively owned and managed. This frame might evoke notions of ecological utopianism and dismissal of our claims. We will need to thoughtfully craft the journeys of discovery that take our audiences through these issues in ways that help them learn for themselves. A “farming practices” campaign is likely to get confusing really quickly. As we see in this analysis (which is by no means comprehensive) there are already many different practices and labels for similar approaches. Building a campaign in this muddled discourse without bringing a new level of clarity will only confuse things further. Focusing instead on farmers’ relationships with the land and the power issues associated with ownership and management feels stronger. A campaign on land and food sovereignty can draw out the different relationships between people and the land. It also enables us to bring the strong critiques of global political hegemony to the conversation about agriculture. This was something I noted as missing in the writings about sustainable agriculture. Most of the material focuses on technical issues with studies of different practices. Very little of the discourse draws attention to the global encroachment of corporate power over land and food. It does come up in other areas, of course, where social activism is more front-and-center. Perhaps this is something we can do at The Rules to help the movement? What Are the Major Take-Aways? In the title I asked how we should think about 21st Century farming. Based on the analysis and discussion presented here, it seems that we need to get very clear about which management practices to promote, how humans relate to the natural world, and which stories will best engage the broad public in active cooperation to evolve our global food systems. Here are a few take-away points to consider: ✦ Construct a narrative strategy that combines best practices in ecological stewardship with the power politics of global change. ✦ Make clear what the core logics are of different approaches and bring more clarity to this web of issues. ✦ Elevate “cooperate with nature” approaches as superior to “power over” relationships with nature. ✦ Anticipate the different kinds of resistance that might come up when these ideas clash with existing beliefs and perceptions. Do this and we will identify a campaign strategy that moves the discourse in a helpful direction. How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014
  8. 8. Background Readings These are the sources I used to get up to speed on these topics. • What Is Regenerative Agriculture? -- regenerative.shtml • Regeneration CSA: How We Farm -- • Wikipedia Entry on Regenerative Agriculture -- Regenerative_agriculture • The Carbon Underground Research Materials -- research/ • Climate-Smart Agriculture (World Bank Report) -- Worldbank/document/CSA_Brochure_web_WB.pdf • Biocarbon Fund -- • Advancing EcoAgriculture Website -- How Do We Think About 21st Century Farming? Weekly Research Report for October 29, 2014