No 44: Amish Questions

When we talk about the contradictions in cultures, Mose leans forward and smiles, his eyebrows bobbing. Copy of P1140109He’s interested in the rest of the world, too, what we know, how we might help. We walk around his farm, past the chicken barn and the housing for his thirty dairy cows that are intensively grazed using new pasture management ideas that came from New Zealand. In some ways, it’s a very traditional method: shepherds used to move fences and manage their flocks and pastures actively. Such grazing requires large inputs of skill and knowledge, and improves grass yields and cattle health, increases organic matter in the soil, up half a percent over a decade, so sequestering carbon too.

There’s a new milking parlour, too, to increase labour efficiency: it is solar-powered. Six Belgian horses stamp in the yard, chestnut in colour with a white blaze on their foreheads, and tan manes and tails. There are other new practices: solar telephone booths for the business, a dog-breeding operation for the pet industry, and composting of chicken waste for the maize fields.

This question of innovation is often perplexing for outsiders. A seemingly unchanging culture that on the inside changes. The Amish are clear: they innovate, but on their terms. And only if new technologies and practices help to build social capital. Modern society is good at pulling things and people apart, separating family, work and play, destroying social relationships.

But the Amish engage in both resistance and negotiation, and in turn will ask tough questions: why do the civilised people deposit their elderly in bleak retirement homes, why do they move house so often and lose touch with family and friends, why do home-owners sit on ride-on lawn mowers and then drive to the gym?

Perhaps we should ask such questions of ourselves.

No 43: The Barrens

Farley Mowat was the first Canadian author to draw stark attention to the way people of the north were Labradortreated. In People of the Deer, he called the neglect, created dependencies and outright destruction of the ways of living a genocide of indigenous people, and for this he was not forgiven by the mainstream. He first visited The Barrens in the mid-1930s, an area talked up by outsiders as empty and terrible.

Said one, “I guess it was the emptiness that bothered me most. That barren and bloody space – it just goes on and on until it makes you want to cry, or scream – or cut your own damn throat.”

At no point did authorities consider letting the Barrens Inuit live on their land. All missionaries, police, traders and policy makers believed they were doing good by bringing people into the modern world. They were saving souls. Yet when outsiders came into the country to set up mining camps or supply posts, they were taken care of by what they saw as stone-age Eskimos.

“The Inuit had an option,” wrote Mowat, “they could have turned them out to fend for themselves.” They did not. Yet even then, missionaries were ungrateful. One, a Fr. Biliard, wrote home, “they do not have a pleasant appearance and at times even repulsive… They sorely need the missionary to drive away the dark clouds of paganism and show them the way to Heaven.”

At The Edge of Extinction, this is the way many people are treated by those who assume they are the civilised.

42. The invasion of cars and calories

Vehicles require non-renewable resources to manufacture, and their use results in considerable Aldeburghenvironmental and social externalities (e.g. air pollution, carbon emissions, congestion). We now know air pollution from diesel vehicles is much worse than official testing.

There are currently 1.127 billion motor vehicles worldwide, producing a country mean of 16.1 per 100 people. Current use predicts an increase in vehicles of 1.3/100 people for each $1000 rise in per capita GDP: as economies grow, so we out more cars in the road. Mean vehicle numbers per 100 people is 64 in the affluent countries of North America, Europe and Oceania countries, 38 in affluent Asia, 16 in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), and generally below 10 elsewhere.

The contrast between the highest vehicle owing country, the USA at 81.2 cars per 100 people (and this includes the elderly and babies), and the fastest growing with rapidly rising demand for vehicles, China at 8.3, is instructive. China has ten-fold fewer cars per person than the USA – for the moment.

At the same time, children are walking less: in the UK, 0-16year olds walk 278 trips per year, down from 351 over less than 20 years. Over 1995-2012, the proportion walking to and from school fell from 47% to 42%, with a rise in car travel from 29% to 35%.

A fifth of adults walk only once per year for 20 minutes; a sixth of children never walk for this long.

People in London walk 292 miles per year, yet in rural Britain only 122 miles: a fifth of all British adults only walk for 20 minutes once per year; in Manhattan people walk more and have access to public transport: obesity rates are 15% of adults compared with the national average of 35%.

Empty calories in soft drinks add 50,000 calories to an average person’s annual diet in the UK, compared with 100,000 in the USA and 16,000 in France.

Eating and walking are linked: how to make walking a part of normal everyday life? Children who are active tend to become active adults. At the same time, electric cars are looking a good option for air pollution.

41. Challenge climate change denial – nothing about climate change is good

The Paris COP 21 will be held in November 2015. Nothing about climate change is good.P1160897

There are 6 common denials:

• Economic growth can continue without impact on natural capital and ecosystem services, and such impacts would anyway not result in negative effects on GDP;

• Increases in GDP linearly improve life satisfaction and well-being through increased consumption;

• Technological innovation will inevitably produce sufficient changes in the energy intensity of material goods and so will protect source and sink natural capital;

• Harm caused to natural capital and ecosystem services has no feedback on human well-being;

• As the poorest countries need to consume more, their pathways to economic development will have to be the same as those adopted by the currently affluent countries;

• Affluent countries do not need to reduce consumption, as conventional economic growth will eventually deliver environmental benefits.

Such denials sleep-walk us into climate change that will affect prosperity, well-being and health. A new ethic of prosperity is simple. A government’s role: to remove the structural blockages and aid policies and practices. This is not futile: five years ago, there were only 2000 homes in the UK with solar PV; now there are half a million. Disruptive businesses will emerge, and make money and create jobs. It happened with the invention of the steam engine, the replacement of horses with the internal combustion engine.

Meanwhile, consumption of bird song, listening to rustle of leaves, sitting in the warm sun, hearing a child laugh, all these make us more prosperous and take nothing away from the planet.

Now another economic evolution beckons. A greener and more equal economy, and new prosperity. We could be healthy, live longer, ensure a safe climate survives.

No 40: Integrated pest management (IPM) and farmer field schools

Effective IPM centres on the principle of deploying multiple complementary methods for pest, weed and Cotton FFS Burkina Fasodisease control. IPM has been defined as a “decision-based process for coordinating multiple tactics for control of all classes of pests in an ecologically and economically sound fashion”. This incorporates the simultaneous management and integration of tactics, the regular monitoring of pests and natural enemies, the use of thresholds for decisions, and spans methods from pesticide product management/substitution to whole agroecosystem redesign.

IPM approaches vary along a spectrum from targeted or changed use of pesticide compounds to habitat and agroecological design. In only very rare cases, such as the aerial release of the parasitic wasp, Epidinocarsis lopezi, to control cassava mealybug in West and Central Africa, can IPM be implemented without farmer engagement. In the past 25 years, there has been a substantial improvement in understanding how to increase farmers’ knowledge so that they are able to cultivate and raise crops and livestock whilst reducing or eliminating pesticides.

The most significant innovation has been the development and deployment of Farmer Field Schools (FFS). The aims are education, co-learning and experiential learning so that farmers’ expertise is improved to provide resilience to current and future challenges in agriculture. FFS are not just an extension method: they increase knowledge of agroecology, problem-solving skills, group building and political strength. FFS have also been recently complemented by modern methods of extension involving video, radio, market stalls, pop-ups and songs. These can be particularly effective where there are simple messages or heuristics that research has shown will be effective if adopted.

FFS have now been used in 90 countries, including in central and east Europe, USA and Denmark. Some 20FFS Mali million farmers have graduated from FFSs, including 650,000 in Bangladesh, 250,000 in India, 930,000 in Vietnam, 1.1 million in Indonesia, 500,000 in the Philippines, and 90,000 in Cambodia.
In Sri Lanka, 610 FFS were conducted on farms of mean size of 0.9 ha, and on which paddy rice yields improved slightly from 3.8 to 4.1 t/ha while insecticide applications fell from 3.8 to 1.5 per season. More than a third of farmers eliminated pesticide use completely, and an average farmer could name four natural enemies compared with 1.5 by those who had not attended a FFS. In Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali, 116,000 farmers have been trained in 3500 FFS for vegetables, rice and cotton. Pesticide use has been cut to 8% (previously 19 compounds were found in the Senegal River, 40% of which exceeded maximum tolerances by 100 fold), biopesticides and neem use has increase by 70%–80%, and there have been substantial increases in yields (e.g., rice in Benin up from 2.3 to 5 t/ha). In Mali, cotton farmers participating in FFS reduced pesticide use by just over 90% compared with pre-FFS use and a control group.

FFS and IPM have had an impact at macro level in some countries. Between 1994 and 2007, rice farmers in the Philippines reduced pesticide application frequency and applications per hectare by 70%, increased yields by 12% and increased the inter-year stability of yields. Over this period, national rice production rose from 10.5 to 16.8 million tonnes.

The top photo is a cotton FFS in Burkina Faso; the lower a FFS in Mali.

For more on IPM see this paper:

No 39: Conservation agriculture – stop ploughing to improve yields and ecosystem services

A variety of measures to mitigate soil erosion, improve water-holding capacity and increase soil organic Conservation Agriculturematter help to improve soil health and boost crop yields. A key feature is the revision or reduction of soil disturbance through tilling. Zero tillage involves no ploughing prior to sowing. Conservation Agriculture (CA) consists of a group of management strategies to minimise soil disturbance, maintain soil cover and rotate crops. This seeks to maintain an optimum environment in the root zone in terms of water availability, soil structure and biotic activity.

CA evolved in part as a response to the severe soil erosion that devastated the US Midwest in the 1930s. Currently, CA systems are practiced successfully across a range of agroecological conditions, soil types and farm sizes. Today, CA practices cover just over 8% of global arable cropland, but are estimated to be spreading globally by some six million hectares per year to a total of 155 Mha in 2014. Adoption varies greatly by region. CAcovers some 69% of arable cropland in Australia and New Zealand, 57% of arable cropland across South America and 15% in North America. By contrast, adoption across Europe is very low: only 1% of arable cropland.

Increased productive potential has resulted in yield differences ranging from 20-120% for CA compared with conventional tillage systems. Beneficial impacts in terms of resource efficiency include reduced need for fertilizer application over time, lower runoff and increased resilience to pest and disease. All these result in significant savings, which, combined with yield increases may translate to significant financial benefits for farmers relative to conventional ploughing practice. A recent European Conference on Green Carbon highlighted the importance of soil carbon content as a marker and enabler of sustainability in agroecosystems, and concluded that CA presents a good strategy to maintain and improve soil carbon levels. Comparisons between conventional tillage and reduced or no-till systems have found higher soil organic carbon, lower emissions and improved soil quality under the former.

While CA offers much potential for sustainable intensification, scientific debate highlights a number of difficulties and contentions. Each component in the CA ‘package’ requires interpretation and the applicability and scalability of CA to smallholder systems has been questioned, especially for developing country contexts. Collectively, recent evidence from the African Union shows that the adoption of CA principles has led to improvements on 26,000 ha, with a mean yield increase ratio of 2.20 and annual net multiplicative yield increases in food production of some 11,000 tonnes per year. In addition, a number of positive externalities, with cost-saving or income-boosting effects, were also reported, including reduced soil erosion, increased resilience to climate-related shocks, increased soil carbon, improved water productivity, reduced debt, livelihood diversification and improved household-level food security.

For more on Sustainable Intensification, see

No 38: Patch intensification: small pieces of land work for food security

Papua New Guinea diverse gardenThe use of small plots of land to cultivate crops or rear fish, poultry or small livestock, near places of human settlement, represents the oldest form of agriculture, and are amongst the most diverse and productive (per unit area) cultivation systems in the world. They provide several significant nutritional, financial and ecosystem benefits including pollination; gene-flow between plants inside and outside the garden; control of soil erosion and improvements to soil fertility; improved urban air quality; carbon sequestration and temperature control through the creation of microclimates. Patches contribute directly to household food and nutritional security, by increasing the availability, accessibility and utilization of nutrient-dense foods, including wild edible species and traditional varieties no longer cultivated on commercial scale. Intensification on patches often comprises an additive change to productivity of agricultural and farm systems.

Patch cultivation at varying scales is also important for urban food security. An estimated 800 million people practice some form of urban food production around the world, most on relatively small patches of land cultivated for subsistence in the developing world (Lee-Smith, 2010).

There is a growing recognition of their complexity, productivity and potential at all scales. The American Community Gardening Association estimates that there are over 18,000 community gardens across the United States and Canada. In the UK, there are an estimated 330,000 allotment plots and interest gardening for food is growing: some 90,000 people are wait-listed for an allotment plot. Private gardens may also make a significant contribution to household food supply. In the late 1950s, it was estimated that 14% of private garden area in London may have been allocated to fruit and vegetable cultivation. Though the current figure may be lower, in 2000 it was estimated that assuming productivity of 10.7 t/ha and consumption of 0.5 kg of fruit and vegetables per capita per day, London could produce enough to supply its residents with 18% of intake. In Chicago, the aggregate production of home gardens may even exceed that of community gardens and other forms of urban agriculture.China vegetable & biogas

In Kenya and Tanzania, the FarmAfrica project has encouraged the cultivation of African indigenous vegetables by 500 participating farmers who have used 50% less fertilizer and 30% less pesticide than conventionally-grown vegetables. In Bangladesh, the Homestead Food Production has involved 942,040 households (some 5 million beneficiaries) between 1988 and 2010. Through home-gardening and small-animal husbandry, the project has achieved notable success in increasing the production of fruit, vegetables and eggs relative to controls, and increased income from the sale of produce.

The two photos are biodiverse garden in Papua New Guinea and Vegetable-Pig-Biogas system in China.

For more on Sustainable Intensification, see

No 37: Agroforestry and fertilizer trees improve crop yields

Trees are good for agriculture. Agroforestry is a form of intercropping where perennial trees or shrubs are Niger 1975intercropped with annual herbaceous crops. A wide variety of agroforestry systems are practiced worldwide, tree intercropping covering 700 Mha, multistrata systems 100 Mha, protective systems 300 Mha, silvopasture 450 Mha and tree woodlots 50 Mha.

The inclusion of trees in cultivated landscapes delivers many social-ecological benefits. It has been estimated that each additional tree planted in an agroforestry system results in an average value of $1.40/year through improved soil fertility, fodder, fruit, firewood and other produce. In 21 African countries, dietary diversity amongst children increases with tree cover. Under ‘Evergreen Agriculture’ systems, trees are planted in fields of annual crops, and replenish soil fertility, provide food, fodder, timber and fuelwood. Overall, this portfolio of benefits provides “an overall value greater than that of the annual crop within the area that they occupy,” writes Dennis Garrity.

Legume tree-based farming systems offer an important route to increase the availability of nitrogen while avoiding synthetic fertilization.This has led to the use of the term “fertilizer tree”. Nitrogen fixation depends on tree species and soil status, and can range from 5 to over 300 kg N per hectare per year. Key species are Gliricidia, Faidherbia, Sesbania and Tephrosia. Faidherbia albida is one example of intercropping being practiced at scale, resulting in what has been called the Green Wall of the Sahel. The tree is particularly suited to intercropping with maize, as it sheds its leaves during the monsoon season when maize is sown. This prevents it from competing with maize seedlings for light and nutrients, while falling leaves provide nutrients. Intercropping with Faidherbia can result in cereal yields of 3t/ha without the application of additional fertilizer, while contributing to significant carbon sequestration, weed suppression, increased water filtration and increased adaptability to serious droughts.Niger 2005

In Zambia, the planting of F. albida within maize fields is practiced over some 300,000 ha. Niger has experienced the most remarkable ‘regreening’ as a result of farmer-managed regeneration of trees in fields. As a result of the relaxation of restrictive policies prohibiting farmers from managing the trees on their own lands, agricultural landscapes in Niger now harbour significant densities of trees. It has been estimated that ‘regreening’ has resulted in a per year increase of 500,000 additional tonnes of food. Maize, sorghum, millet, groundnuts and cotton have all shown increased yields – even without additional fertilizer application – as a result of Faidherbia.

The two aerial photographs are from Niger, and show the impact of tree planting over a thirty year period: the Green Wall of the Sahel (via Chris Reij).

For more on Sustainable Intensification, see

No 36: Management-intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) systems for sustainable livestock

Extensive low-intensity grazing systems are well-adapted to many landscapes, such as the dry steppes of Rotational grazing, OhioAsia, savannahs of Africa, tundra and boreal habitats of the sub-Arctic, rangelands of North America, and wet uplands of Britain. Cattle, sheep, goats and reindeer are important shapers of whole landscapes as well as source of food. In these contexts, intensification is not desirable, mainly because the landscapes are generally at or close to carrying capacity. However, there has been a recent rapid expansion in intensive grazing management systems, particularly in the lowlands and on smaller farms. These management-intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) systems use short-duration grazing episodes on small paddocks or temporarily-fenced areas, with longer rest periods that allow grassland plants to regrow before grazing returns.

These systems substitute knowledge and active management for external inputs to maintain grassland productivity. As many have replaced zero-grazed confined livestock systems, the animals themselves are bred for different characteristics: large mouths, shorter legs, stronger feet and hooves, larger rumens. MIRGs were first developed in New Zealand, and now have become common in part of the USA: they are used on 20% of dairy farms in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont. Some whole communities, such as Amish of Holmes County, Ohio, have converted all dairy systems to rotational grazing, where their response to family labour availability and reduced costs of MIRGs has been to reduce animal milk productivity to save time at milking.

MIRG systems result in improved soil quality, increased carbon sequestration, reduced soil erosion, improved wildlife habitat and decreased input use. Livestock in housing create waste disposal challenges and costs; livestock continually grazed manure the land. But animals on the same grassland for too long cause over-grazing, sparse pastures with low persistence, and soils low in carbon. In typical MIRG systems, animals are moved twice a day. This requires high levels of monitoring and active management by farmers. Such short and intensive periods of grazing mean the animals consume all plants, rather than leave those they otherwise find unpalatable. Well-managed grazing systems have been associated with greater temporal and spatial diversity of species. There is also evidence that MIRG systems result in greater animal welfare.

For more on Sustainable Intensification, see

No 35: List all non-exercise physical activities you do at home (repairs, lawn mowing, hoovering)

Ekblom-Bak et al. (2013) have used the term non-exercise physical activity (NEPA) to focus attention on theNest Box health benefits of daily activities such as home repairs, mowing the lawn, car maintenance, bicycle rides, fishing and gathering wild foods: 60-year old Swedish men and women with high NEPA reduced the risk of first time CVD by 27% and all cause mortality by 30% over a 12.5 year period.

There are thus three options for maintaining an active body: i) activity at home or at the workplace/place of education; ii) activity during non-work leisure (e.g. sports, gym, gardening); and iii) active travel to and from work, education or leisure.

Activity has declined in all these categories, and is thus having a negative impact on well-being.