Guy’s Newsletter: the economics of ecological mimicry

Last week I spent a contemplative afternoon picking crab apples. The trees, along with medlars, damsons, apples, blackberries and hazelnuts, were planted ten years ago as part of a hedge. Some would call it permaculture, but neglect would be more accurate. I sometimes wish I could disengage the calculator in my head, but, failing to reach Zen oneness with my picking, my mind whirred. Weighing my haul I calculated that the combined yield of appropriately designed mature hedge could hit 50 tonnes per hectare, with not a drop of diesel burnt or pesticide used; all while providing a rich, undisturbed habitat for wildlife, shelter for livestock and enhancing the landscape with genuinely sustainable farming.

So why does the huge majority of such fruit get left to the birds or to rot, while most of our country is condemned to a hedge-less monoculture? The problem is that it can’t be harvested profitably to meet the demands of our current food system. About 25% of the hazelnuts have been devoured by a grub, making them unmarketable; the blackberries carry too many bugs for most people’s (and certainly supermarket) taste; yields, size and ripeness are all too varied for conventional retailers, and too few people eat crab apple jelly, let alone make it. Most significantly, it’s hard to mechanise the harvesting of mixed crops, though given the ingenuity of agricultural engineers, it’s not impossible to envisage.

Across the valley, Andy, our farming co-op member is harvesting potatoes; his biggest crops might yield 50t/ha but with the best will in the world he is killing earthworms, damaging soil structure and burning diesel in the process. Almost all modern farming constitutes a brutish, unsustainable treatment of the land to mollycoddle weak annual crops; organic farming, while less flawed, is far from perfect. Truly sustainable agriculture is possible but will not happen while food is valued so little; just 2-3% of GDP goes to produce it. It will never be achieved through market forces; the changes needed are too radical. Ultimately we need to eat more plants that are happy in the UK (rather than those on the edges of their climatic tolerance, like tomatoes and wheat), and fewer animal products. We need to mimic ecology and use modern technology to make it economically feasible. An ambitious plan, but not impossible. We’re willing to experiment should any agricultural engineers be reading this.

Guy Watson