Merging Agromodernism with Skepticism: A Manure Detection Kit

Agromodernism merged with skepticism

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I recently gave a talk in Salem, OR titled “Merging Agromodernism with Skepticism: A Manure Detection Toolkit”. The talks outlines the critical questions I ask in trying to evaluate proposed food system innovations or reforms. I follow up with some examples of innovations and reforms that I think could get traction in lowering the environmental impact of production. Finally, I explain why I think some reforms popular in the current zeitgeist cannot be significant in terms of lowering the impact of food product. Not in any meaningful way. I’ll follow up this post with one outlining my threshold questions and then one covering the innovations that I think we should be leaning into. Today I’d just like to explain the terms that compromise the theme of the talk and to encourage you to watch it. I’m quite proud of it and I think you’ll enjoy the ENTIRE hour and twenty minutes. (Heads up, the sound quality is fair to middling. I cleaned up in post-production as best I could, but it’s still not great. Hopefully my dynamic presentation style will carry the day!)

What is Agromodernism?

Agromodernism is the term I use to refer to ecomodernism applied to agriculture and food production. Ecomodernism (sometimes called ‘eco-pragmatism’) is a dissident school of environmentalist thought. Ecomodernists hold that technological innovation and intensification are – more often than not – the best path to reduce the environmental impacts of human activity. Instead of trying to reduce impacts by reducing the use of technology, ecomodernists advocate going all in on smart applications of technology. The aim is to shrink the footprint of human activity and get out of the way of nature and wilderness, rather than trying to integrate nature into human systems.

The most striking example of this is cities. There is nothing more unnatural than a city. Yet the environmental impacts of city dwellers are far lower than folks living in suburbs surrounded by trees and lawns. City dwellers walk more, use more public transportation, travel shorter distances for work and shopping. Their apartments and condos stacked one on top of another are more efficient to heat than a suburban single family dwelling. A satellite of photo of a lush green suburb may look more in step with nature, but the land space, fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions of a suburbanite dwarf those of a Manhattanite. Better to crowd together and leave more room for forest, brooks, lakes, and the critters that rely on them for habitat. More often than not, the same goes for farming.

Read more:
• An Agromodernist Reader | Volume One | Opening Salvos
• An Agromodernist Reader | Volume Three | A Corrective to [Small. Local. Organic.]

Ecomodernism began in the early aughts as various environmentalists became disenchanted with the mainstream environmentalist movement. The movement often seemed driven more by aesthetics and ideology than evidence and metrics in its thinking. You can see this in opposition to technologies like nuclear energy and genetic engineering of crops in agriculture.

It burst onto the scene with a 2005 paper presented at a climate change conference by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.  The Death of Environmentalism described a growing schism in the attitudes of the US electorate towards environmentalism driven by a movement that married apocalyptic scenarios with technocratic fixes so modest that could never meet the challenges they were proposed to address.  

“The bad boys of American environmentalism made their case this morning, and they made it well. By the time Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus had finished presenting the data that led to their famous ‘Death of Environmentalism’ paper, most of the large crowd gathered for the “What Works?” conference here in Vermont were convinced that they had seen where the future lay for the climate-change movement — or at the very least, where it didn’t…. There’s something almost exhilarating in knowing how bad a situation really is. Spared the false hope that maybe things will get better on their own, at least you have permission to think expansively about what to do differently.”

— Bill McKibben,, January 26, 2005

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary is the book that best makes the case for ecomodernism for a general reader.

James McWilliams - Just Food
Just Food was an early example of agromodernism.

In agro-environmental space, James McWilliams, a Texas State historian of American history specializing in the historical roles of farming and food, shook up the pieties of the locavorism in 2007. In an opinion piece in The New York Times, he called into question whether “food miles” was actually an environmental impact metric that meant much of anything relative other more impactful variables. He followed that up with the 2010 book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

Just Food laid out the case against leaning too heavily on food miles in greater detail. It had a chapter sketching out some of the strengths and weaknesses of organic production in terms of environmental impacts. He then called for a hybrid sustainable agriculture that merged the best practices of organic with technological innovations from conventional farming. Another chapter discussed the potential of the genetic engineering in crop breeding. Much of the book dealt with the biggest variable in the equation – protein production, with chapters on meat eating and sustainable fishing.

In my own intellectual development, the website Biofortified, founded and run by Anastasia Bodnar and Karl Haro von Mogel and the essays and blog posts of plant pathologist and agricultural consultant Steve Savage were instrumental. They shepherded my thinking from pragmatic locavore to eco-pragmatist. Biofortified focused on biotech in crop breeding. The writing was by people trained in the relevant fields, something I wasn’t used to in the anti-GMO screeds I was used to. They were committed to public spirited values I had not previously associated with Monsanto’s dreaded “GMOs”. Meanwhile, Steve Savage’s writings on topics like ‘improvements in modern pesticides‘ and ‘thinking straight about monoculture‘ set off one light bulb moment after another when I first came across them.

Read more:
• The Agromodernist Reader | Volume Seven | Biology Fortified
• An Agromodernist Reader | Volume Five | Biotech: A Tool for Sustainability

At The Breakthrough Institute, Ted Nordhaus has spearheaded the institute’s series on The Future of Food focusing on the environmental benefits of technological intensification and systems focused on land sparing. Land sparing systems focus single mindedly on yields and producing as much on as little land as possible. Land sharing systems try to maximize on-farm biodiversity and ecological services rather than higher yields. Land sharing systems focus on the environmental impact per acre of farm, while land sparing systems seek to lower the environmental costs per unit produced.

With a growing population and a fixed amount of arable land, I think impact per unit produced is far and away the more salient metric compared with impact per acre. Likewise, in the land-sparing versus land-sharing research literature, I think the weight of the evidence is that land-sparing is better for regional biodiversity, even if land-sharing strategies produce more on farm bio-diversity.

What is ecomodernism?

 Agromodernism in Three Aphorisms

1. There nothing natural about farming. Mimicking nature is of a lot less valueable than people give it credit for.
2. Not everything that feels sustainable is sustainable.
3. Everything in agriculture is a trade off.

Read more:
• An Agromodernist Reader | Volume Four | On the Farm: The Quest for Better

So, that’s your introduction to Agromodernism.

What is Skepticism?

The “skepticism” in the title refers to “Scientific Skepticism“. This is an approach to critical thinking that aims to help you rigorously separate the signal from the noise on controversial issues. It is not “skepticism” in the everyday sense of being dubious or doubtful about something. Rather — scientific skepticism applies weight of evidence analysis, keeps a watchful eye for logical fallacies, and a commits to accepting solid evidence even when it rubs our prior commitments the wrong way. It accepts that our minds are “machines for jumping to conclusions“, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls them and tries to take steps to counter our cognitive biases.

Read more:
On Getting Near The Center of the Bullseye On The First Try

Much of the skeptic movement’s intellectual tradition springs from Carl Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. In it he laid out a set of critical guidelines he called a Baloney Detection Kit:

• Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
• Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
• Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
• Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
• Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
• Quantify, wherever possible.
• If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
• “Occam’s razor” – if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
• Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is it testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

In addition, he emphasized key aspects of the scientific method and a list of common logical fallacies that often camouflage baloney in plain sight.

The “Manure Detection Kit” of my title was a nod to Sagan. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll go into more detail of the logic behind my manure detection kit. Here is an outline of my critical questions specific to food system innovation and reform:

A Manure Detection Toolkit

1. Would this address a major challenge?

Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Nutrient Management & The Nutrient Cycle
Soil Health
Water Conservation & Management
• Land Use – Deforestation & Rewilding
Food Waste

2. Can This Scale in a Significant Way?
• Does it change an already large part of the system?
• Does it solve an economic problem for somebody?
• Does it require a larger, more complicated social reform in order to succeed?

3. Biology 101 – Three Considerations
A. What Does Farming Require

• Sun / Energy
• Soil / Growing Medium
• Space / Large Area

B. Protein is the bottleneck

• Protein is expensive because nitrogen is biologically expensive.
• Carbs are cheap because carbon is biologically cheap.

C. Entropy vs. Conversion
• Livestock are warm blooded animals. There is a ton of energy and water expended using their biology to transform crops into protein and fat with major nutrient waste streams.
• Neither plants nor insects nor single celled organism come with those issues in maintaining their biologies while transforming energy, water and nutrients into protein and fat.
• On the other hand, grazing animals can be applied to environments that won’t produce crops for human consumption and transform the cellulose in those environments into protein and fat.

A Vision for an Agromodernist Future

This is an outline of innovations and trends that I’m either bullish on or hopeful about. I’ll discuss these in greater detail in a third post.

Modalities to watch for in:
• Traditional Rural Farming
• Urban/Peri-urban Systems
• Industrial Production Systems

1. Traditional Rural Farming: A Combination of Conservation Ag with High Tech Innovations
A. Conservation Ag
• No-till and conservation tillage
• Cover Crops
• Diverse Rotations
• Novel Integrations – crop/livestock | livestock/aquaculture
• Kelp Farming
• Multi-trophic Aquaculture

B. High Tech
• Anaerobic Digesters
• Precision Ag – data, drones, GPS, remote sensors, satellite imagery
Biotech Breeding
• Precision irrigation
• Robotics
• On farm solar-powered ammonium nitrate production

2. Urban/Peri-Urban Systems
• Anaerobic Digesters / Black Soldier Flies
→ soil amendments and livestock feeds
• Urban Mushroom Farms powered by coffee grounds, food waste, saw dust
→ mushrooms, mycoproteins, “leather”, soil amendments
• Cricket Farms powered by food, paper, cardboard waste
→ cricket flour, livestock and aquaculture feed, soil amendments
• Integrated livestock/aquaculture/specialty crop peri-urban farms

3. Industrial Production Systems
• Synbio Systems harnessing algaes, yeasts, bacteria, and fungi to produce fats, proteins, and scarce aromatics.
• Big Data to identify and synthesize prized animal proteins and fats from plant sources.
• Synthetic and In Vitro Meats and Cheeses

4. What to Watch in Crop Breeding
Slugging Away
• Biofortification – beta-carotene, zinc, iron, etc
• Drought Tolerance
• Disease Resistance
– especially important for orchard, grove, vineyard crops – citrus, banana, cacao, coffee, grapes
Swinging for the Fences
• Nitrogen Fixation
• Speeding Up Photosynthesis
• Improved Albedo

So, that’s the outline of the talk. I’ll be back in the next two installments to but some meat on the bones of the Manure Detection Toolkit (to mix some metaphors) and to talk about why I think urban mushroom farms make more sense than vertical farms or community gardens if you are trying to lower the impact of food production.

  [Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. All contributors receive a subscription to our email newsletter the FAFDL Dispatch. ]


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