Wednesday, December 30, 2015

so what's the big deal about mechanization?

Why is it so important to mechanize ‘best practices’ (see previous post)? (Caveat: ‘conventional management’ is something of a moving target. The entire industry is in slow upheaval and transforming itself incrementally, in response to diverse pressures. At some point, it may even become an ally in the pursuit of ‘best practices’, and short of that it's quite likely to adopt new technologies as they prove themselves feasible.)

Anything new must compete effectively with what already exists. In the developed world, the cultivation of commodity crops, like wheat, feed corn, and soya, is already highly mechanized. Every operation from preparing the seed bed (or planting through stubble) to harvest is performed by machine. Consequently, the prices the market will pay for such commodities is predicated on mechanical production. Any competing production regime must manage to operate profitably despite this, or no farmer will use it.

In fact, this is such a compelling argument that it simply doesn't make sense to start out by attempting to compete with conventional agriculture in the context in which it is at its most efficient, as defined in its own terms. Instead, the objective should be to bring the prices of other crops, the production of which are not so easily mechanized, more in line with the prices of commodity crops, to increase the proportion of people's diets they comprise, while managing their production according to ‘best practices’, gradually removing land from conventional management in the process. Once the technology is mature and economies of scale are in place, then maybe it will be time to include bulk commodities; a development which could be accelerated by the advent of perennial varieties of cereal crops.

But being able to compete in the market just gets you into the game; the real value in the mechanization of ‘best practices’ stems from its necessarily robotic nature, meaning that it would unavoidably be built around the acquisition, transformation, and utilization of information. Properly handled, that information could form the basis for an understanding of plant husbandry comparable to that of a master gardener, but more detailed, and vastly more reproducible (what one such machine knows others can learn almost instantly).

It is this sophistication, founded partly in programming and partly in machine learning, that can ultimately make mechanized horticulture uniquely successful, given that there will never be enough master gardeners to go around, at producing what people need while protecting biological diversity and rebuilding the fertility of the soil.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

making ‘best practices’ meaningful

We've heard a fair bit about best practices lately, which is very encouraging, but I seriously doubt everyone means the same thing by that phrase.

Chances are many with a financial stake in agriculture use ‘best practices’ to mean the best that is achievable without excluding whatever it is they're selling, whether that be tractors and other heavy equipment, or herbicides and pesticides, or GMO seed, or equipment for pumping water from aquifers, and so forth.

So constrained, ‘best practices’ becomes a hollow expression, meaning something like the best we can do without changing anything we're doing. To restore meaning to the phrase, to get to the core of what ‘best practices’ should mean, we must push aside all such considerations. As internally consistent and coherent as current practice may be, it can play no part in determining what ‘best practices’ really means.

You can think of this as getting back to basics, as a mental exercise. We need food (rather a lot of it considering how many people are expected to be sharing the planet in another decade or two), and we get most of our food from the land. But the land has needs of its own, and if we ignore those we undermine its capacity to provide for our needs over the long term. How can we continue to get food from the land without diminishing its capacity to produce it? Or, better yet, how can we get food from the land while increasing its fertility and turning it into a carbon sink, at the same time?

There are other issues as well. Other species also depend on the land, for food and habitat, and it would be a much poorer world without them, but we cannot afford to take too great a hit on production to accommodate them, and we also need to improve the safety and nutritional characteristics of food in general, so our evolving question becomes how can we get non-toxic, nutritious food from the land, on a scale comparable to current practices, while, at the same time, increasing its fertility and making what biodiversity remains more resilient?

Let's provisionally define ‘best practices’ as being any combination of practices which achieve all of these goals, while also eventually eliminating the reliance of agricultural on non-renewable resources of any sort.

Notice that I haven't included the need to minimize labor in this list of goals. That has been at least a side-effect, if not actually a goal, of the transformation of agriculture brought about by petroleum and the internal combustion engine, having already resulted in a dramatic reduction in the percentage of the population directly engaged in the production of food, perhaps too large a reduction given that finding something useful for people to do is becoming a problem. Also, with the development of robotic technologies, operations formerly requiring the eyes, brains, and hands of a human being will increasingly fall within the reach of automation. So minimizing labor (whether human or some robotic surrogate) only figures in as it effects the profitability of production operations, not as a goal in itself. If labor allows you to apply methods that achieve those best-practice goals, it's bringing something valuable to the table.

It is my belief that ‘best practices’ will turn out to mean polycultures incorporating both annuals and perennials, requiring detailed manipulations, and eschewing the use of routine tillage or any use of heavy equipment that compacts the soil, as well as most use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

This is a huge change from current common practice, but a much-needed change. Happily, that need for change is coming to a head as robotics is maturing to the point that it is reasonable to think it could enable ‘best practices’ as I've used it here, by supplying the means to mechanize them, and that a concerted effort to develop the necessary technologies could make that happen in a timely manner.