Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Green Books Campaign: Slow Money by Woody Tasch

This review is part of the Green Books campaign . Today 100 bloggers are reviewing 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. Our goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. This campaign is organized by Eco-Libris, a a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website .
EcoLibris Link

As the official blurb above says... I'm taking part in a global campaign today whereby 100 green bloggers review 100 green books. The campaign was put together by Raz from ecolibris through which you can plant equivalent trees for every book you read. Ecolibris are great supporters of the whole sector and I came across them when
their blog was one of the first to review The Green Marketing Manifesto

The book which I chose was:

"Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered" by Woody Tasch (Chelsea Green US)

There's only one catch. Unfortunately the book which was posted to me nearly a month ago hasnt arrived. It has most likely got caught in Britain's slow post (we've had a series of strikes here and 30m items are said to be held up). 99 book reviews doesn't have quite the same ring and I really didnt want to let the campaign down. So I am writing instead a (p)review to say why I chose this book to review and really want to read it when it does eventually turn up!

Why I thought this was the most important book to read at this time:

1. I've been working on a food project called Earth Open Source. I'm a city living green and was until then fairly ignorant of the critical importance of food, farming and especially soil in climate change, global justice and so on. Although even a city green would have picked up for instance James Lovelock's claim that food & farming were responsible for 50% of all carbon emissions. That's due to transport, the energy that goes into agriculture (farm equipment and chemicals), change of land use (aka loss of grasslands and forests). But the really big issue is our treatment of soil. The IPCC have now agreed to include soil sequestration in their next round of assessments after this letter by prominent scientists (full text, refs and commentary here):

Grassland Carbon Working Group
Soil Organic Carbon is the Future Beneath Our Feet 26 January 2009
To: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
c/o Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Chairman

Civilizations rise and fall with the quality of their soils. Soil organic carbon is essential to soil health. We are given one more chance to learn the lesson of history. This time the stakes are higher – soil degradation is endemic to every continent and we have created a new, atmospheric, carbon crisis. The presence of soil organic carbon can be the difference between life and death. Soils store twice as much carbon as global vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Loss of historic soil organic carbon due to degradative land use has been dramatic, resulting in poor soil fertility, environmental pollution, food insecurity and poverty. Soil organic carbon can and must be restored. Excess carbon in the atmosphere is a pollutant; carbon in the soil is a valuable ecosystem commodity. Healthy plants are the agents of transformation, converting the former to the latter. We consider grasslands in order to illustrate the potential of soil carbon sequestration in all agricultural soils. Grasslands cover one third of the planet’s 149 million km2 of land surface. A small change in soil carbon across this vast sink will have an enormous effect on atmospheric carbon. A 1 percent absolute increase in organic matter of grassland soils would sequester 102 Pg of carbon, removing 375 Pg of CO2 from the atmosphere(i).

...An urgent and pragmatic assessment of the role of soil carbon sequestration is overdue. Grasslands and all forms of agricultural soil carbon sequestration must be recognized as an important source of mitigation at the next meeting of the international conference of parties in Copenhagen, and this important mitigation strategy accordingly linked to financing mechanisms. We call on the IPCC to hold immediate talks to develop strategies for the implementation of soil carbon sequestration at full potential. On the basis of these talks, we encourage the formation of a new working group to meet prior to the meeting in Copenhagen in December and its action plan be reported at that time. We extend our assistance to the IPCC in this important matter.
Convergent crises provide unprecedented opportunities. The multi-functional nature of soil organic carbon provides answers to problems, which paradoxically in isolation may appear insurmountable.
Like the crisis, the opportunity is unprecedented.
The solution is in our hands.

For those who would like to follow this up grain.org have a great article on this subject which claims:

"According to our calculations, if we could manage to put back into the world’s agricultural soils the organic matter that we
have been losing because of industrial agriculture, we would capture at least one third of the current excessive CO2 in the atmosphere. If, once we had done that, we were to continue rebuilding the soils, we would, after about 50 years, have captured about two thirds of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere."

And if you really want to get to grips with the subject head over to the Rodale Institute.

All of which explains why in the Earth Open Source team we have come to the view that FOOD IS THE NEW ENERGY. Not that it's an either or but the preceding facts on the pivotal role of farming do argue that if a fraction of the effort that went into multibillion investments in solar were diverted to farming, food and especially soil done right, then we would be on our way to a solution, not only to climate change but feeding the 9 billion, right?

Well yes and no. because it depends what kind of investment - leading to what kind of farming.

2. The problem is that food, farming and soil done right requires a different model for investment too. As Tasch's book argues (as far as I can tell from the publisher's information, his speeches online and so on :) there is a need for slow money ie an alternative model to lean and mean free market capitalism.

Fast capital applied to farms demands maximum financial returns on capital (and did I mention "fast"?). These are achieved by
i. growing cash crops, those suitable for export or sale as commodities
ii. and growing them in an intensive, large scale, industrial monocrop fashion
iii. which in return relies on heavy use of machinery and agrichemicals, also potentially seeds that are under patent
iv. partly because machines are cheaper (per acre) than workers - in fact agribusiness generally quotes yields per worker to underline this being a key profit indicator

This last point also deliberately (some believe) obscures a fundamental finding. Small polycrop farms (ie traditional farms) are far more productive OF FOOD PER ACRE than big farms. This doesn't translate into fast buck profits for big investors. But it does translate into better diets and more secure food for people. Monocrop harvests are exported (often in developing countries as encouraged by the IMF - foreign currency to pay off debts). But even when eaten at home it's a meagre diet - as Michael Pollan pointed out: the main thing you eat in almost every food in the USA is corn. So much corn syrup is used in fact that the average US citizen eats 1.1kg of sugar every week.

The finding that small farms are more productive (in every sense except return on investment capital) is well documented. As George Monbiot wrote in an article entitled small is bountiful:

"Though the rich world’s governments won’t hear it, the issue of whether or not the world will be fed is partly a function of ownership. This reflects an unexpected discovery. It was first made in 1962 by the Nobel economist Amartya Sen, and has since been confirmed by dozens of further studies. There is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield. In some cases, the difference is enormous. A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are twenty times as productive as farms of over ten hectares. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Phillippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere."

Nonetheless fast capital and the so called 'industrial model is growing, in the face of all this evidence. Why? because investors love it. Especially now that there is a biofuels boom, global food prices spiked (in 2008) and according to the FT hedge fund and VC money has been rushing into investments in farming (following 30 years when the sector was less popular). For instance the FT reported that:

"Emergent Asset Management is even more ambitious, with the British hedge fund manager aiming to raise €1bn (£787m) over the next year to put into sub-Saharan African farmland. "The cost of land is very, very low," said Paul Christie, marketing director of Emergent. "We want to make the land more productive. It is industrial scale farming and it is going to make a big difference down there."

Taking these points together the crux of the issue is as follows:

Not all the fast money is chasing planet suicide. For instance Craig Sams former Green & Blacks founder has started a (Silicon Valley VC backed) biochar company. As reported in the Independent. But it's a fair bet that slow money is the much more likely to help build a vibrant farming community, who nurture the soil and save us all.

All of which explains why I was very keen (out of a long list offered) to read and review Tasch's thoughts on the subject. Not just a pundit or bystander (like yours truly) Tasch is chairman of a circle of investors who have already put $130m in farming done right. And I believe from other genuine reviews he is a lyrical writer, especially on the subject of soil. Here's a quote I picked up from lavidalocavore

"You wouldn't use a 747 to go to the corner store for a quart of milk. You wouldn't use a backhoe to plant a garlic bulb. You wouldn't use a factory to raise a pig. You wouldn't spray poison on your food. You wouldn't trade fresh food from family farms down the road for irradiated or contaminated or chemical-laden or weeks-old food from industrial farms halfway around the world..."

Part of the problem is we urban types are so alienated from what we eat and what impact it has that we probably would (I see plenty of people in jet sized cars for a start). We have lapsed into what British food policy professor Tim Lang (in a recent talk at NEF's Bigger Picture) called "A 70 year fantasy that we can buy what we want, whenever we want, from wherever we want."

In summary I would LOVE to read this book and I urge everyone else who reads this post to do so. We need to get a critical mass of recognition behind the following key points:
1. industrial farming and poisoned soil (more than even coal and oil) are the KEY problem driving climate change
2. patient small scale mixed crop farming, done the organic &/or traditional way are the KEY climate change solution
3. the type of investment is critical to the transition from 1. to 2. - as the title says it takes slow (ie patient) money

I would add that community and cooperation are key. Much of the research behind this (p)review came from from my own forthcoming book "Coopportunity". Supermarkets are predicated on choice. Fine, let us choose good food from good local farms. If we choose it they will have no option but to sell it (or if they dont, their successors will). I know growing your own is tempting, but don't miss the chance to buy from community supported agriculture, or to demand healthy, seasonal, local organic food from the major retailers too. (Much organic food in the UK is imported which rather misses the point as far as climate solutions go). That's something we are focusing on with Earth Open Source. But we need to get the investment model right, otherwise there will be no local, small farm, healthy and soil respecting food left to demand!

So buy this book, plant a tree (via EcoLibris) and demand better food from better farms. And if you have cash and a conscience consider getting into farming done right. That's about it. A full review of the actual book to follow when slow post allows.


Anonymous said...

nice one John. looks like a read. the whole food thing feels like a crisis we're not very far away from experiencing. this talk from Patrick Holden blew me away at the Do Lectures. The urgent need for entire rethink of the food system with local/community/co-ops at the heart.


Serena said...

Hopefully after reading the book you will have more to say.

tony lovell said...

Thanks for this great post and especially the emphasis on soil carbon. There are 2 critical aspects to addressing global warming and reversing desertification.

1 – reduce future emissions – for this TECHNOLOGY is absolutely essential.

2 – absorb the current excess legacy loadings already in circulation – for this BIOLOGY is absolutely essential.

The simple truth is that probably half of the current problem has been directly caused by inappropriate human management of our land. Changing this management can have an immediate impact as the presentation mentioned below shows.

Please take a few minutes and look a little more into the massive and positive impact changed grazing management could have. Professor Tim Flannery has stated that sequestering carbon into the soils of our grazing lands is one of the best means we have available to us for dealing with climate change.

There is growing concern for significant action to avoid catastrophic climate change. Please take a few minutes and look through the presentation on Soil Carbon at http://www.soilcarbon.com.au

Not enough people are yet aware of Soil Carbon and the critical role it can play in helping to reverse the impacts of global warming.

Did you know that just a 1% change in soil organic matter across just one-quarter of the World’s land area could sequester 300 billion tonnes of physical CO2?

Recent Australian studies have shown that a 1% change can occur within a few years – and in fact up to 4% changes were measured in some areas. The management changes required to achieve these increases are very readily implemented. I hope you find the presentation of interest.

John Grant said...

Thanks Andy will check it out. He's talking today at a Soil Assoc conference on the future of food but not sure i'm going to be able to make it down.

Thanks Serena, very droll ;) I reread the review in the light of your comment but oh well what can you do I didnt want to let Raz & EcoLibris down.

Thanks Tony too, fascinating paper. There are quite a few people over here thinking on similar lines. The one thing I wonder is whether market forces are the right way, at least in that direct policy and taxation sort of way? There is something right about paying at source both for resource depletion and climate damage (an outcome tax rather than an income tax, you could call it?) Conversely that could scale up into a subsidy of good practice - as in the net effect of a cap & trade programme. But the cost/effort of converting whole economies to organic and soil positive smaller mixed agriculture...? This kind of happened anyway in East Europe following the fall of soviet communism, no-one could afford the fertilisers. Apparently now Ukraine has (as well as some of the best soil) one of the cleanest agricultural sectors in the world. But for it to happen without massive dislocation...? What could be great is if we pay every farmer what saving the world might be worth for independently assessed best practice. They get paid once for the food and again for the soil. We can do this as consumers (its the model applied by fair trade, choosing to 'overpay' farmers in free market terms). But leave it to choice and we wont get the paradigm shift needed.

Paying a much higher price in the West for food done right would need to be done in a way which protected the lives and diets of the poorer countries and economies. It would extend the need for several things:
1. punitive taxes so that food done wrong is not the attractively cheap option. Many analysts think that was the cause of the wobble in organic sales last year - cheap alternatives on 'credit crunch' (10p for a loaf of bread) promotion.
2. Farmers should have a sort of cap&trade scheme perhaps where the bad subsidise the good directly. It calls for a war effort style of government intervention. This is coming anyway as food security is hurtling up the agenda alongside energy security.
3. Protection of farming from speculative investment. We cant let making growing food well and looking after the soil become another biofuels. Why? because fast buck ROI as Tassch's book says is the enemy of good farming.

John Grant said...

Incidentally I saw the Royal Mail yesterday and they told me they were pleased to have at last cleared the backlog. Makes me worried that Woody's book has got stuck in customs or lost altogether. I'll give it another week and then I might have to get hold of another copy.

John Grant said...

ps on a lighter note there is a growing momentum behind the 'eat the streets' idea; ie planting fruit trees in public spaces.

I heard Tim Lang talk about this at Bigger Picture, several others mentioned it to me since and it seems to be bubbling up within blogs & zines eg

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