We’ve officially reached the time of year when plants run rampant and bare ground completely disappears from the more established parts of the garden. In a temperate climate like ours this is what should naturally happen, since most plants lose their leaves or die back for the winter before filling out again in the spring and the summer, and it has a lot of advantages. Increased shading of the ground discourages weeds, creates a cool environment that helps retain moisture and provides habitat for helpful wildlife like frogs and toads. It also means you don’t notice so much if one particular plant passes away, since any hole will quickly be filled by neighbouring plants. The only problem is that it looks very messy to modern man/woman, and even the most environmentally friendly often feel the need to wade in and bring order to the chaos without actually identifying any real problem with letting the plants get on with it.
I think part of the problem is that we spend most of our lives in a completely controlled, managed environment. We spent 5 days a week working in a shop, or an office, filled with straight lines and rules and regulations, then we spend half the weekend regimenting our homes in the same manner, and when we walk outside we just can’t let go even when intervention isn’t necessary. We can’t just wait and see and gently nudge things in the right direction if they seem to be going wrong, vigorous preemptive action is called for, even if it’s actually counterproductive.
Of course, even with high densities of compulsive tidiers, urban gardens are actually in many ways better than most of the countryside nowadays. A few weeks ago a German study of wild insect populations in the Orbroich Bruch Nature Reserve was in the news. Despite being a nature reserve, the biomass of insects caught in the park using the same trapping methodology fell by 80% between 1989 and 2013, likely due to the reserve being a small island in a sea of industrialised agriculture. Farming is worse because it combines the ‘carpet-bomb the area just in case’ mentality of some gardeners with the short-sighted externality-ignoring logic of business. Let’s look at the logic:
1. Kill Everything Just in Case
Firstly, predictable financial returns are important to most businesses, especially if they’re highly leveraged as many farmers are. This means that, even if on average organic / low pesticide farms aren’t obliterated by pests, any small increase in the risk of crop failure is unacceptable. Far better to kill everything that you don’t definitely need now, than see your business struggling because the one thing you didn’t kill turned out to be a problem afterall.
The list of sustainability problems with agriculture as conventionally practiced is quite long, so here’s an incomplete summary:
- Leaving fields bare for too long destroys soil structure and causes erosion and rapid surface run-off (flooding)
- Chemical fertilisers kill beneficial soil micro-organisms which would otherwise build and retain fertility
- Those same fertilisers are either unsustainably mined or produced using energy intensive processes that mean 10 calories of (fossil) energy often goes into one calorie of food
- Herbicides and pesticides decimate populations of beneficial insects, including pollinators, by either killing them directly or killing alternative food sources
What this all adds up to is that modern industrialised farms are eroding their natural capital and calling it income, a fundamental accounting error.
3. What Externalities?
And then there’s the externality problem. Actions that individual farmers take yield immediate benefits to them, but a long-term cost to everyone else, and that long-term cost is greater than the individual benefit. The financial incentives don’t align with the common good.
Let’s take bees. An awful lot of crops need pollinators to yield successfully, so you’d think farmers would be willing to put time and energy into helping them. But if one farmer uses bee harming chemicals and his neighbours don’t, then he reaps the benefits and bees still come in from other farms. And if everyone is using them, then him not using them won’t help the bees (they’ll just get poisoned by someone else) but it will mean a reduction in his own income, so why would he stop? It’s the good old tragedy of the commons.
And it’s even worse than that, because even if a farmer could make a difference by being bee friendly, his efforts would help not just himself but also his free-loading neighbours. What that farmer wants is the ‘Automated Pollination Machine (TM)’, or APM for short. Imagine:
You buy your APM with a 10 year warranty and install it in an old barn. It needs feeding with borage flowers, so you plant up 10% of your fields with borage and feed them into the machine. You lose potential yield because of the borage, but you gain far more because of better pollination. You program the machine with the boundaries of your land, and it sends out thousands of automated pollinator drones, programmed to pollinate the flowers of your crop but not the weeds or your neighbour’s plants.
Unfortunately, nature doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t understand human rules or boundaries and it isn’t designed with simple, well-specified interfaces. Where people think in straight lines and APMs, Nature thinks in messy, complex networks. And when we say that we want it our way or no way, then the long term answer is no way.
There’s no easy answers to the farming question. We need to somehow make sure that we feed everyone in the short-term, while also learning to let go a bit, to be gentle and subtle in our interventions and respect that the ecosystem we’re living in is too complex to be thought of purely in industrial terms. But there is an easy answer to the gardening question – learn to love a little mess!