The Mad Agriculture Journal
June 01, 2020
At the many events we’ve attended this year, in-person and online, we’ve been struck by the diversity of the community in which we operate: conventional farmers, regenerative ranchers, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, hippies, private equity folk, the healthy food crowd, agrarians, permaculturists, republicans, democrats, libertarians, even the occasional anarchist. Truly, the regenerative movement includes all types. It welcomes all.
At Mad Agriculture, we welcome all perspectives and believe that healthy disagreement breeds new ideas. It is far too easy these days to listen only to those with whom we already agree and it doesn’t take long before we find ourselves surrounded like-by-like. Yet, it is only by listening deeply with an open mind that we’ll find that next idea that unlocks ecological and economic value for farmers. To do this work well, we must summon the goodwill to break out of our bubbles, seek out dissent, listen deeply, and find the truth in different opinions. We must work just as hard with people we disagree with than those with whom we agree. At the Quivira coalition, this is called “dwelling in the radical center.” This is what the work requires.
In that spirit, we sat down to discuss a disagreement of our own: place-based vs. planetary thinking. Are the problems we face the result of planetary forces like climate change or the consequence of not focusing on our own place first? Do the best solutions focus on the very large scale or the very small? We hope this conversation illustrates that conflict can be a generative force, that the philosophies that shape us don’t always have to be the ones that divide us, and that different approaches can make our work stronger and our purpose more clear.
Q: SHOULD WE FOCUS FIRST ON PLANETARY PROBLEMS OR LOCAL PROBLEMS?
Tanner: I think it’s clear that global issues are the summation of a bunch of place-based issues. A planetary crisis isn’t created at the planetary scale; it is created locally and then builds up. So the solution must also occur in place. There might be a global recognition or a higher level organization of effort, but the real work has to happen on the local level, farm by farm, field by field, backyard by backyard.
Take flooding. Climate Change (a global perspective) would lay the blame for flooding on erratic and extreme weather. From a place-based perspective, the biggest issue with flooding is soil that can’t retain water, a lack of plants to capture and keep it in place, and the disappearance of wetlands. When precipitation hits an impervious surface like pavement or hydrophobic soils, it becomes sheet flow and ends up in rivers or wetlands, if they remain. Soils with depleted organic matter and areas with sparse or shallow rooted plants allow less infiltration and more surface flow, which means erratic river volumes (floods and low waters). On the other hand, in a system full of wetlands, living roots, and healthy soil, water is held across the landscape and promotes further regeneration, slowly releasing water below ground and reversing the trend toward less flooding and drought. Also, floods happen; there were times when floods were the lifeblood of soil (eg. the Nile River Valley).
Max: You’re right that there is a difference in emphasis between planet and place-based thinking. Thinking about climate change as a planetary phenomenon identifies the source of the problem in global temperature, precipitation changes, carbon dioxide levels and other intangibles. And you’re saying we should think more locally and specifically about where the source of the problem is.
However, I’d note that the scale of the problems we face, in particular climate change, is at a planetary scale. Even flooding. Yes, it is true that in one sense flooding is caused by a lack of soil carbon and poor water infiltration. But more and more we see increased flooding and other extreme weather is being driven by climate change. And if we don’t get those big global things right, we don’t have a chance of solving these specific problems locally.
Take another example: more persistent drought in Eastern Colorado and the Midwest. The root cause of this is changing weather patterns that are themselves caused, ultimately, by increased CO2 in the atmosphere. No matter how much we improve water infiltration in the soil we won’t be able to prevent these weather patterns from changing. We have to tackle the problem at its cause, which means addressing CO2 levels. We have to think about the problem from a planetary perspective.
Tanner: Fair enough, and with less rain we really need to use it well. For example, drought is determined not just by the amount of rainfall, but by the amount of water available within a system relative to what that place needs to thrive. What matters is the effective rainfall, which is all that water that has been held in place by the soil so that plants can grow and rivers and springs can receive a slow and steady influx for more parts of the year. Floods and droughts are related, not just by what falls from the sky, but by what happens on the ground. Drought isn’t defined only by precipitation, it is a consequence of reduced retention and infiltration. Likewise, less rain can happen from a changing climate, but dealing with the highs and lows is place-based.
Additionally, scientists and stewards alike are recognizing that even the global climate has a significant local component. When you think of the Amazon as the lungs and the heart of the world, breathing out air and playing a major role in the water cycle, you see that place-based retention and plant life also impacts the climate and global weather patterns. When a place is dried out, it doesn’t have the water within the system for evapotranspiration, or to form new clouds and then fall again as rain or dew. Plants and soil play a part in creating and in utilizing the rain. It’s not just CO2 in the atmosphere, it’s a lack of water in places that creates and perpetuates drought.
Max: Good point. Certainly, I agree there are some really good local solutions that help make our communities healthier and more resilient. But, ultimately, I would insist that it’s heightened levels of CO2 caused by industrial production that are causing these problems. And if we don’t think about things from a planetary perspective, the local communities will continue treating the symptoms.
DOES A LOCAL PERSPECTIVE PRIVILEGE OUR LOCAL PLACES OVER OTHERS?
Max: Another concern I have about taking a local perspective is that I want to make sure we don’t privilege our local places over other people’s local places. For example, there’s this argument that’s out there about agricultural intensity that goes like this: if it is the case that organic or regenerative agriculture produces less food; and, if we’re going to have to feed more people in a growing world then, that lost food production is going to have to be made up by producing more food elsewhere. And that probably will happen in places like in Brazil or Thailand, not in Boulder or Topeka.
Agriculturally-driven deforestation is happening at a record pace. And so we need to make sure regenerative agriculture doesn’t create a situation in which we produce less food and drive up the cost of food so that in other places it’s more profitable to grow commodity crops, driving more deforestation. From a climate perspective, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot, since the rainforest does far more to remove carbon from the atmosphere than soils. But also, from a moral perspective, we would be privileging the farms of Boulder over the rainforests of Brazil. I think that’s a real challenge to the place-based thinking you’re talking about.
Tanner: First, I think the yield reduction is over exaggerated in the difference between chemical industrial farming and regenerative. It depends on the practice and the context, but there are also cases like interseeding Balansa clover into corn that can have in-season yield bumps and add extra forage for grazing post harvest. We’re still learning the how-tos of regenerative ag but the potential is promising and the productive downsides are manageable and shrinking.
Second, deforestation and the loss of wild places is only going to be reduced and restored as regenerative frameworks improve, as chemical industrial ag becomes more expensive in degraded soils or marginal fields, and most importantly as we continually understand the farm as a living system that benefits from life in and around the fields. Wildness, nature, the untamed and the undomesticated is all part of it.
Third, look at the end usage of certain global commodity trades. We are feeding the industrial complex rather than our people. We have a glut of commodities in this nation already and this year looks like we’ll only add to the surplus. The continued market-suppressing need for CRP land and the prices of most commodity crops show that supply is outpacing demand: a system propped up with policies that enable overproduction.
And finally, if we shift our acreage so that we’re growing food, consumers will have more market influence on how crops are grown. If you’re growing an industrial commodity like ethanol, desiccant residues and nutrition don’t really matter; your car doesn’t care if the ethanol-petrol mix is organic. Food becomes us, land health is human health.
On the topic of feeding the world, it’s important to look at the impacts of exporting such a large percentage of our food. When the US floods international markets with our cheap agriculture, it destroys the agricultural systems of these places and diminishes their ability to produce their own food. If we stopped flooding them out with our cheap exports, those places would be better suited to grow their own food again. It’s the removal of a place-based food system that is the problem. Even locally, imagine how many more farmers we could support if we didn’t import as much food.
Max: You make some good points. However, I just don’t think there’s any going back to a place-based food system. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a global food system and globalized world. This is the Anthropocene and the world has been forever changed by human beings already. I believe we need to accept that and figure out ways to make changes within the global system. We can’t go back to a small town, agrarian world that doesn’t exist anymore. I wish we could. The twenty-first century needs twenty-first century solutions, not nineteenth century solutions.
Tanner: Some of the advancements and efficiencies of our twenty-first century technology can be redeployed at a more regional scale. Look at the COVID-induced innovation that has occurred in local food systems and purchasing; it’s easier than ever to go online, pre-order veggies, and scoop them up at your local farm stand. That’s a redeployment of complex supply chain technologies in a simplified local form. The kinks aren’t all smoothed out and it’ll take time for major adaptations but the trend is telling.
Still, you don’t have to grow all of your own food in your own backyard, or even within your state. Areas like our nation’s breadbasket has more land than people so a surplus of food can be grown there and transported to high density places. Also, despite all of our industrial advancements, small scale agriculture has a higher productivity per acre than broadacre. Small acres are more highly managed which is both more expensive and ultimately grows more food. The expense, though, goes towards peoples’ livelihoods , not the cost of chemical and mechanical inputs. As Bob Quinn would say, more labor means more jobs. Let us not devalue the worth of our neighbor.
Max: That’s a striking argument, but the truth is we live in a globalized world. Changes in wheat production in America do affect the price of wheat in Asia, which does affect the way that people farm there.
Tanner: Look, I don’t want to lose the whole global food system because I love coffee. Coffee doesn’t grow anywhere near where I live. So having no trade is not necessarily what is meant by place-based food. It’s a rebalancing. We’ve gone too far toward the global end of the spectrum.
Max: I’m glad to hear you say that about coffee because I think it’s really important to recognize just how good we have it today. Despite the real challenges we face, it’s hard to deny that the vast majority of human beings in the world today are better off than nearly all human beings in the distant past. Food security, food choices, upward mobility, life expectancy — these indicators all show how far we’ve come in the past few generations.
Tanner: That’s true. Food is cheaper than it’s ever been before, which we take for granted now because we’ve only lived in a cheap food society. But most of us have witnessed the negative externalities that can come with cheap food. We need to produce food that nourishes people and the cheapest calories aren’t always the healthful answer. Good food for all, not just those who can afford the choice.
Max: Let me ask you one last thing: is it fair to say that part of regenerative agriculture is just placed-based thinking? Does this all boil down to “Think Globally, Act Locally”?
Tanner: For sure. But also think locally. I’ll let Wendell Berry have the last words:
FROM WENDELL BERRY: THINK LITTLE
“We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.”