Nostalgia? Returning to More Natural, Biological Technology in Farming

Farming methods may to modern eyes seem to have once been more natural but are we being romantic and nostalgic?

A great website that traces the history of the countryside and agriculture – ukagriculture.com – is an easily digested history of UK population and economic developments and their impact on farming from the days of Saxon England onwards.

One small example is the fluctuation in the country’s woodland from approximately 11% woodland cover during the Roman period (100AD) to 15% in Norman era. It was down to around 7% by 1350AD, even less than today, and then climbed to a broadly stable 10% while the total length of hedgerow continued to grow as more fields were enclosed.

Meanwhile there was from very early times an inexorable drift of population from the countryside to the towns and cities, which accelerated after c1750 and the onset of the industrial revolution.

Two more significant moments in history are the Second World War with the need to increase domestic food production and then, fuelled by a rural labour shortage, the development of the combined harvester.

Add in population growth, the search for profit and the need to increase food production and the result is so-called agribusiness, getting rid of the hedges that used to enclose our fields and the woodland that got in the way of the big machines that allegedly made farming more efficient.

It’s pretty clear, therefore, that producing food – farming – has always been driven by economics and by population changes.

So while in the past there may have been a better balance in the way farmland was used thinking nostalgically is something of a red herring. Farming is now and historically always has been a commercial activity.

Urban population growth and production costs are the twin pressures to produce more from the same amount of land, especially on an island like Britain. They led in the 1960s and 70s to using more and more chemicals to get rid of pests and diseases and to increase yield per acre.

Then came the wake-up calls: the BSE and other scares, tales of hormones in our chickens, increasing evidence of chemical-induced carcinomas from our food.

A couple of decades on and we no longer tolerate damage to people’s health from chemicals in our food, or the threatened destruction of the environmental balance on which we all depend for life.

The growth in global communications and in global travel have also opened people’s eyes to inequalities in both food production and people’s access to enough food.

It’s becoming urgent that we balance the need for more food against the imperative to preserve the quality of the land it comes from. It’s commonsense, it’s not about nostalgia.

That’s why the growing emphasis on sustained farming, organic and more natural agriculture and on biological agricultural products like biopesticides and biological yield enhancers that could arguably be as crucial to the small developing-world farmer as they are to bigger operations in the developed world.

It’s about trying all kinds of things appropriate to the local ecology – as illustrated by this story about Zambian farmer Elleman Mumba a 54-year-old peasant farmer growing maize and groundnuts on his small plot of land in Shimabala, south of Lusaka.

Feeding his family used to be a problem and the yield was very little. “We were always looking for hand-outs; we had to rely on relief food.”

With no oxen of his own to plough his field he had to wait in line to hire some, often missing planting as soon as the first rains fell. for every day of delay the potential yield is shrunk by around 1% – 2%.

In 1997, Mr Mumba, thanks to free training given to his wife, switched to conservation farming. It uses only simple technology, a special kind of hoe and Instead of ploughing entire fields, farmers till and plant in evenly spaced basins.

Only a tenth of the land area is disturbed. it reduces erosion and run-off and in the first season increased his yield to 68 bags of maize – enough to feed the family and buy four cattle! (his full story is on the BBC Africa website)

That’s what innovation, sustainable farming and thinking outside the box are all about. It’s about economics and what works, not about nostalgia.

Review of on Natural Selection by Charles Darwin

I have been researching great thinkers and how they have shaped the world. I have also been trying to prove that the act of reading helps to generate or even stimulate great ideas. Great thinkers do not operate within a vacuum, they rely on the works of others, and often expand the original thought and take the world further. Charles Darwin and British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace independently arrived at similar theories of Natural Selection in the mid-1800s after reading Essay on the Principle of Population by British pastor Thomas Malthus.

Darwin defines natural selection as the “preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variation.” So what does this all mean? Darwin further adds, “Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic… Natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest steps.”

This book wasn’t the easiest to read, and I found it quite “dry”. But, in my quest to find out where really good ideas come from, I made the sacrifice and slogged through it. I have selected fives ideas from On Natural Selection. For the five ideas below, how can you use them in different contexts to resolve/understand modern day problems?

Five Good Ideas

  1. When a plant or animal is placed in a new country amongst new competitors, though the climate may be exactly the same as its former home, yet the conditions of its life will generally be changed in an essential manner. If we wished to increase its average numbers in its new home, we should have to modify it in a different way to what we should have done in its native country; for we should have to give it some advantage over a different set of competitors or enemies.
  2. Individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind
  3. When a species, owing to highly favourable circumstances, increases inordinately in numbers in a small tract, epidemics often ensue
  4. The more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers
  5. Natural selection is working behind the scenes all the time throughout the world whenever the opportunity arises. It works to improve each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. You cannot see these slow changes taking place, until after a long period of time has elapsed, we see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were

We could take idea number two and look at it in the context of education. It’s a reasonable assumption to make that people who are more educated have a better chance of succeeding than those who have less education. Or, for that same idea, we could say, someone who has an idea and knows how to take action, will be more successful than someone who has ideas but do nothing about them. Success in this context is not restricted to financial success. Why don’t you take one of the above five ideas and see what new ideas you can generate?

I recommend On Natural Selection because I am sure that you will come up with your own five ideas. This is not a book that you would read for entertainment, but it will certainly stretch you.