The wealth of fields and nations

As we end bad practice and attempt good practice, so farm and garden soils can accumulate some vital biomass and biodiversity. But that increase in soil biomass will always end at an optimum point, at which the farmer/gardener can only attempt a balance – a stable, living mass. That balance is precarious, because it is subject to human fallibility, unpredictable weather and very human choices, such as attempts to cultivate, or harvest – to salvage something, in unsuitable weathers. Even here, in temperate Wales, such unsuitable weather is becoming more and more frequent. This season we’ve had extreme rainfall, extreme heat and extreme winds – all of which are likely to grow worse. It’s plain that unsuitability will accelerate – that is, current human cultures will be increasingly ill-matched to the weathers which once sustained them. The lovely yeast of soil, which gave rise to a more or less stable harvest, will be diminished by flood, drought, wind and human desperation. However skilled we are and however hard we struggle, beyond an optimum point, we will not “draw down further carbon” onto our virtuous fields and gardens.

Anyone who raises an eyebrow at the word, desperation, is plainly not a grower, or farmer.

Even in perfect weather, the best husbandry can only aim for balance, while knowing that it will often fall short of that balance – all farming and gardening disrupts the natural ecology it has replaced. I think we should begin with that primary knowledge. We should also assume that we will make mistakes. Our task is to grow food, while causing as little ecological and atmospheric harm as we can. We will cause climate heating and we will disrupt natural systems – knowing that, is the best frame of mind to learn how to limit that disruption.

There are outrageous claims for farming and gardening systems which “draw down carbon” into their lovely soils. These are often made by the “newly-enlightened”, new farmers and growers and by writers and journalists passionately applying a revelatory idea – a permaculture; an agroecology; – and too easily finding evidence for their own virtue. It is used to promote produce in marketplaces and since it is often a genuine, if deluded aspiration, there are few of the kindly who’d rock its boat.

If we consider organic as a method which attempts as best it can to imitate the optimum cycling of organisms, then we have in the word a fine rule of thumb for farming and gardening. And it is true that the linear gift of sunlight can repair some very human cracks in our attempted cycles, but only to a point. That point is an optimum (durable maximum) photosynthetic leaf area, much of which will have disappeared down those cracks.

Like sunlight, there are other linear contributions, which are often accepted as a gift from nowhere. They are no such thing. They have come from somewhere – an emptying hole in the ground, a broken organic cycle in some-one else’s field, or from a once-vibrant ecosystem, such as a forest.

Many practitioners have made outrageous boasts of soil sequestration by importing large amounts of mulching material. They import from another’s impoverished organic cycle. In short, this is either narcissism, or simple anti-social behaviour – it diminishes a common good. If one field receives biomass grown in another field, the sum of the two masses will end as less than the original mass, which had been thriving in the soil and plants of the two separate fields. Although soil biomass will increase in the importing field, it will increase by less than the loss of biomass in the exporting field. The sum of the biomass of both fields will be smaller and Atmospheric CO.2 will increase accordingly. Where is the missing mass? – in energy (heat), gas from uncycled fermentation and in leached minerals from the importing field and in cascading diversity and mass of soil fauna and plants in the exporting field.

We could imagine a world without artificial fertilisers, in which the powerful appropriate green wastes and sewage for their high-yielding, money-making fields, while the disempowered struggle to scratch a living. As always with inequity, overall yields will fall, while a few become rich. Overall photosynthesis will fall, along with the shrinking soil biomass and increasing atmospheric CO2.

The human economy is also an organic system. Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, observed, Economies with high wages and low profits achieve the “greatest wealth of nations”, while those with low wages and high profits achieve the least.

That equity of wealth distribution applies equally to both economy and ecology of fields. Of course, a field which is most knit inside the webs of its ecology, achieves greatest economic success. But that success can only be achieved for a community of fields if so called wastes (wages) are distributed fairly between all fields. If those biomass/wages are taken by an elite group as profit, then the wealth of the nation of fields will fall.

The greenhouse effect of lifeless gases will increase to the same degree.

Having left fossil mass to lie quietly sequestered in its strata and having ended the burning of living biomass (the lungs of lovely Earth), and having re-arranged our ways of life to do without what those fires and explosions have brought us – suburbia, the family car, aviation… – we must look to Adam Smith’s prescription for a bio-massive wealth of nations.

Fields can shrink from the compass of oil-power to the compass of man-power and we must limit growing areas to just our dietary needs – and I’d say, pleasures. Meanwhile, we must let the wilds expand – only the wilds can “draw down carbon”.

They are Eden. Sorrowfully, we cannot escape the Fall. As the poet, Edwin Muir tells us – Time’s handiworks, by time are haunted. He continues – blossoms of grief and charity bloom from these darkened fields… Strange blessings, never in Paradise, fall from these beclouded skies.


Featured image: wildflowers. Source:

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