Senda Verde Permaculture Eco Center

Thursday, 31 December 2009

Farms, Worms, Cash and the Space Time Continuum

Grain silos on a wheat farm

It’s no secret that farming is a largely thankless occupation. The hours are relentless, the work often alienating (sitting for hours on end in a tractor in the drizzle with a pair of ear defenders on must be a recipe for dark thoughts) and the rewards paltry.

Tragically, given the extent to which we all depend on the above for our literal daily bread, the suicide rates of those working in the agricultural sector clearly reflect the tribulations of those in this troubled line of work.

Oxford University’s Centre for Suicide Research has pointed to financial and health problems, the effects of legislation and regulations, exposure to organophosphate compounds, and social isolation as just a few of the contributing factors.

The thing is, modern farming is often immensely destructive as well as immensely productive, and not just to farmers themselves. The so-called Green Revolution of increased chemical pesticide and herbicide usage, improved seed varieties and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has caused production to soar over the past 50 years, but there is growing evidence that many of the gains bought were short term, as biodiversity faces a massive assault, water tables fall and the land becomes exhausted.

All the above seem to point to the fact we are thinking about land and farming in the most hidebound, mechanistic way. There must be other ways of going about things:
A woman picks what's left of her failed crop in Gujarat, India. AP photo

A woman picks what's left of her failed crop in Gujarat, India. AP photo

How, for example, about an integrated, zero-waste highly productive farm that maximises the use of renewable energies and turns ‘wastes’ into food and energy resources? Not only that, but one that counters the paradigm of infinite competitive growth with a zero entropy model that makes a fundamentally deeper use of the space-time continuum.

(Yes, I just wrote that. No I’m not stoned: bear with me).

And how about using derelict buildings and delinquent kids in a rundown city as two key components in building an urban farm that produces affordable meat, fish and veg for one of the “food deserts” of America, “where the only access to food is corner grocery stories filled with beer, cigarettes and processed foods” and provides meaningful work for hundreds of people?

What about getting Wall Street and venture capital firms to invest in 20 million worms that can effectively recycle the organic waste of a small city, producing rich compost at the same time? Or to fund the conversion of forests and wetlands destroyed by logging or pollution into fish farms that use no pesticides, require no cultivation of land, no forest clearance and no discharge of polluted water. And that produce renewable energy at the same time?

All of the above are happening or in the pipeline in micro-projects dotted around the world, that could and should provide a blueprint for the future of agriculture and dare I say it, a remedy for many pressing social ills including crap processed food, obesity, a detachment from nature, urban decay, environmental havoc and suicidal farmers. (It’s good to be optimistic!)

But first, that space-time continuum thingy:

Biologist Mae Wan Ho of the excellent Institute of Science in Society, is keen on developing the notion of sustainable systems as organisms, or more explicitly, how to extend her “theory of sustainable systems as organisms to include growth and development explicitly.” In the model of a farm she’s nicknamed Dream Farm 2; “a microcosm of a different way of being and becoming in the world” she’s set about putting theory into practise.

Some background on the idea and sustainable systems as organisms:

The ‘zero-waste’ or ‘zero-entropy’ model of the organism and sustainable systems predicts balanced development and growth at every stage, as opposed to the dominant model of infinite, unsustainable growth. This immediately disposes of the myth that the alternative to the dominant model is to have no development or growth at all.

The dominant model of infinite competitive growth can be represented as the bigger fish swallowing the smaller ad infinitum… A person grows at the expense of other people; a company grows by taking over other companies, laying waste to the earth’s resources in the meantime.

There is no closed cycle to hold resources within, to build up stable organised social or ecological structures. Not surprisingly, this is totally unsustainable, which is why we are faced with global warming and the energy crisis.

In contrast, the archetype of a sustainable system is a closed lifecycle, like that of an organism, it is ready to grow and develop, to build up structures in a balanced way and perpetuate them, and that’s what sustainability is all about. Closing the cycle creates a stable, autonomous structure that is self-maintaining, self-renewing and self-sufficient.

In order to do that, you need to satisfy as much as possible the zero-entropy or zero-waste ideal. In this ideal, no waste or disorganisation (entropy) accumulates in the system. Even the waste (entropy) exported to the outside is minimised towards zero in a healthy balanced system. The more we approach that ideal, the better the system can develop and grow, and remain young and vibrant.

The system’s cycle contains more cycles within that are interlocked to help one another thrive and prosper… The farmer prepares the ground to sow the seeds for the crops to grow that feed the livestock and the farmer; the livestock returns manure to feed the crops. Very little is wasted or exported to the environment. In fact, a high proportion of the resources are recycled and kept inside the system. The system stores energy as well as material resources such as carbon. The extra carbon is sequestered in the soil as the soil improves, and in the standing biomass of crops and livestock.

The farm can perpetuate itself like that quite successfully and sustainably, or it can grow.

And here is where it gets all Stephen Hawking, only with algae:

Organic growth is always done in a balanced way by engaging more cycles, units of devolved autonomy that help one another do better.In the old paradigm, organisms are predominantly seen to compete for resources and for space. But we’ve got three space dimensions and the time dimension too.

We’ve got space-time that we can fill up more thickly with life cycles of different sizes that occupy different space-times. That is exactly what organisms in a naturally biodiverse ecosystem do to maximise the reciprocal, symbiotic relationships that benefit all the species. So you can add fish, algae, poultry, worms, mushrooms, etc., turning the ‘waste’ from one cycle to resource for another.

The more lifecycles incorporated, the more energy and standing biomass are stored within the system, and the more productive the farm. It will also support more farmers or farm workers.

Productivity and biodiversity always go together in a sustainable system, as generations of farmers have known, and recent academic researchers have rediscovered. It is also the most energy efficient. Why? Because the different life cycles are essentially holding the energy for the whole system by way of reciprocity, keeping as much as possible and recycling it within the system.

Industrial monoculture, in contrast, is the least energy efficient in terms of output per unit of input, and often less productive in absolute terms despite high external inputs, because it does not close the cycle, it does not have biodiversity to hold the energy within, and it ends generating a lot of waste and entropy and depleting the soil.

Pretty theory dense, but there are others who are putting similar ideas into practise, and involving a social dimension too:

Will Allen has been getting a lot of attention since the New York Times ran a glowing report on his project in urban Milwaukee. As the paper wrote, Allen has the makings of an agricultural dream packed into “two scruffy acres in one of Milwaukee’s most economically distressed neighborhoods.”

His Growing Power organization has six greenhouses and eight hoophouses for greens, herbs and vegetables; pens for goats, ducks and turkeys; a chicken coop and beehives; and a system for raising tilapia and perch. There’s an advanced composting operation — a virtual worm farm — and a lab that is working on ways to turn food waste into fertilizer and methane gas for energy.

“I’d like to see Growing Power transform itself into a five-story vertical building being totally off the grid with renewable energy, where people can come and learn, so they can go back to their communities around the world and grow healthy food,” Mr. Allen, 59, said in an interview at the farm.

Having just secured a US$500,000 grant, Allen looks in a good position to make his project really take off. Meanwhile, in another corner of America, Yale graduate Janine Yorio is looking to get Wall Street interested in fish and worms. Formerly a specialist in structured loans and boutique hotels in the finance sector, she opted to get out and pursue an industry with “real underlying growth prospects.”

As the Atlantic reports, after studying what was happening in the underworld of sustainable agriculture, Yorio reached a novel conclusion: there’s gold to be found off the grid of conventional agriculture and set about trying to make some money from some pretty left-field enterprises with her own advisory firm.

Yorio started NewSeed Advisors in early 2009. The company works with niche producers to transform innovative ideas into organized industries capable of attracting venture capital.

(Yorio’s) relationship with the company TimberFish Technologies reveals what she’s up to. TimberFish pioneered a complex process that transforms forest material into fish feed within a recirculating ecosystem…

It gets pretty technical: talk to the venture capital guys about “terrestrial-based flow-through configurations” and all you’ll see is the exhaust pipe of their Maserati as they roar off for greener pastures. But as Yorio knows from her background in high finance

Reframe TimberFish as THE solution to THE largest pollution problem for an active industry with global dimensions, however, and ears suddenly prick up.

Yorio’s work with a vermiculture company called CSR Plus Vermicast presents the related challenge of expanding a company’s scale. The company converts organic waste into soil additives using earthworms.

Yorio’s goal is to commercialize this model through a blueprint that aims to attract big municipal contracts. “It takes 20 million worms to recycle the organic waste of a small town,” she explains, adding that there’s no reason why CSR could not scale up to “process organic waste at the municipal level.” With many large cities contemplating, or even enacting, composting laws, one can see how a savvy investor might find a re-conceptualized CSR to be an appealing investment.

Between Mae Wan Ho, Will Allen and Janine Yorio, there appear to be several alternative models of agriculture that — although still in their nascent stages — could provide a fascinating blueprint for further investment down the road.

As urban decay racks many large cities, predictions of further oil spikes in the future pose troubling questions about food security and industrial agriculture devastates the countryside, driving everything from larks to bumblebees into near-extinction, the above examples prove their are exciting alternatives out there that can involve the community, be sustainable and not destructive; involve, not shut out, the mavens of high finance and yes, that involve life cycles that occupy different space-times.

Thanks to Jamblichus

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