Preparing porridge, Mali. Image: Oxfam
Preparing porridge, Mali. Image: Oxfam

Day 3: The Ultimate, Elegant Engineering Solution

11 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

Low-input agriculture is hardly primitive. It is a highly skilled craft, utterly unlike the formulaic industry that “conventional” farming has become. Instead of continuing to pour oil on plants and hope for the best, let’s embrace an agriculture that requires more attention, more vigilance, and more knowledge

By Bill McKibben, Founder of 

In summer 2012, amidst an intense drought across the American grainbelt, the world’s most fertile quarter, the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, finally admitted that global warming was real. But not to worry, he continued: “It’s an engineering problem with engineering solutions.” Pressed as to what those solutions might include, he gave one example: moving the planet’s ‘crop production areas.’  

By crop production areas, I believe he means what the rest of us call farms.  And of course it’s not an “engineering solution” to suggest moving them—it’s a hallucinatory solution. You can’t take Iowa and move it north to the rapidly melting tundra, not unless you’ve got a plan for moving the hundred feet of topsoil that makes it Iowa. 

“You can’t take Iowa and move it north to the rapidly melting tundra.”

A more interesting question, then, might be whether we could figure out an actual engineering solution, but one that moves away from fossil fuel in our farming. It’s hard for us to even consider it mentally--we’ve trained ourselves to think that “producing enough food for a growing world” means “big tractors.” At least in places like the United States, we’re used to the idea that soil is mostly a substance for holding plants upright while you pour oil on to make them grow. 

It would sure be helpful if we could break the habit, since agriculture contributes more than any other industry to the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since agronomists have by now made it painfully clear that further increases in global temperature will devastate yields, farmers would be doing themselves a great favor if they could start reducing their use of petroleum. 

But can we? In the fall of 2008, for instance, the UK’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, blamed “anti-scientific attitudes” among western NGOs for “holding back” a new “green revolution” across Africa. Organic farming across the continent would, he insisted, have “devastating consequences.” Low-input farming seems so old-fashioned (and it does nothing for the share prices of western agri-business firms), yet the data keeps mounting up.

As I pointed out in my last book, Eaarth, a month after King’s statement, the United Nations Environment Program issued a report showing that yields across Africa “doubled or more than doubled where organic or near-organic practices had been used.” In East Africa, harvests jumped 128 percent. Not only were harvests better, but the organic soils were retaining water and resisting drought. “Saving money on fertilizers and pesticides help farmers afford better seeds,” too. And of course there are cases where you can replace fossil-fuel traction with animals, who have the virtues of being cheap, and providing on-the-job fertilizer.

“You can replace fossil-fuel traction with animals, who have the virtues of being cheap, and providing on-the-job fertilizer.”

Some of the organic practices introduced were simply traditional farming, while others drew on Western innovations—double-dug beds, for instance. Henry Murage, a small farmer on the western slopes of Mt. Kenya, spent five months in England, studying with experts at an experimental farm in the Midlands. When he returned to Africa, he convinced 300 of his neighbors to adopt at least a few of his practices—during the last devastating drought to hit the area, they were the ones who fared best. It’s harder work at first—anyone who has double-dug their own beds can remember the knot between the shoulders. But once the work is finished, he says “little has to be done for the next two or three years.”

Jules Pretty reports than in one review of Kenyan organic farming in 26 communities, three quarters of participating households were now free from hunger during the year, and the proportion having to buy vegetables has fallen from 85 to 11 percent.” He describes a woman, Joyce Odari, whose 12 raised beds are so productive that she employs four young men from the village to tend them. “The money now comes looking for me,” she says.

One problem with what we now call conventional farming (in fact, it’s the convention only of the last half-century, and a radical break with the 10 millennia that proceeded it) is that you’re constantly degrading soils as you turn them into a matrix for holding petroleum-based fertilizer. By contrast, low-input systems get better over time, partly because the soil improves but also because farmers stop relying on the rote advice of chemical companies and start paying attention to their fields. 

“Farmers of course talk among themselves—new ideas spread quickly.”

In Malawi, for instance, tiny fish ponds that recycle waste from the rest of the farm yielded on average about 800 kilograms of fish when they were begun in the 1990s; half a decade later that figure was 1,500 kilograms. Instead of playing themselves out, the way our industrial soils have, these farms were revving up. 

And farmers of course talk among themselves—new ideas spread quickly. In Madagascar, rice farmers worked with European experts to figure out ways to increase yields. They transplanted seedlings weeks earlier, spaced them further apart, and kept their paddies unflooded during most of the growing season. That meant they had to weed more—but it also increased yields fourfold to sixfold. Jules Pretty writes, “The proof that it works come from the number of farmers using it—an estimated 20,000 farmers” have adopted the full system, and another 100,000 are experimenting with it. Now word has spread to China, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Cambodia, Nepal, the Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh.

Some of these advances come from farmers spreading the word—others because the conventional systems become too expensive or unreliable for farmers to use. Left to their own devices, more farmers would aim, I think, for a low-input future. But we’re rarely left to our own devices—the political power of the agribusiness industry insures that the farmer’s field is always tilted in the direction of more oil. That’s why, sadly, it’s not enough for farmers to simply do the right thing on their own acreage; as always, part of the job is coming together as movements to demand the changes in government policy that will make it easier to farm responsibly.

“Farming beyond fossil fuels is by no means backward or primitive.”

One important part of that transition is reminding others—and ourselves—that farming beyond fossil fuels is by no means backward or primitive. In fact, it’s fossil fuel that turned farming into a formulaic industry and not a skilled craft. Going without oil requires more attention, more vigilance, more knowledge. In a sense—though definitely not the sense the Exxon CEO had in mind—it’s the ultimate, elegant, “engineering solution.”

Download: The Ultimate, Elegant Engineering Solution


Ultimate elegant engineering solution

The ultimate elegant engineering solution


At least two serious problems hinder a discussion between those promoting intensive agriculture that uses external inputs such as inorganic fertilizer and those promoting what is called today agro-ecological agriculture. The first group is mainly quantitative and the second more qualitative, and both groups tend fighting against a persiflage of the other system. Being one of the first group, I like illustrating this using the “ultimate elegant engineering”  presentation.


There is no doubt, organic farming can double the extensive yields of poor African farmers. Too often, the space is lacking for producing the manure or compost to realize double yields. In such cases, organic fertilizer becomes in general more expensive than inorganic fertilizer. I observed such situations both in the Sahel and in Central Africa’s Great  Lakes Region.


Sure, fossil-fuel traction can be replaced by animal traction with animals, and yes they are cheap. What counts, however, is the contribution to the crop production costs expressed in $/kg. Animal traction does not win easily comparisons.

Those rice farmers from Madagascar who produce extreme high yields do not only transplant earlier keeping paddies long un-flooded, they also use extreme high amounts of manure;  most farmers do not have access to such amounts.


Above three illustrations of quantitative problems for qualitative “solutions”. Now the persiflage:  “you’re constantly degrading soils as you turn them into a matrix for holding petroleum-based fertilizer” This statement only holds if inorganic fertilizer is used without any attention for soil quality. Using inorganic fertilizer in an integrated soil fertility management context leads to soils with increasing soil organic matter content and soil life. I illustrated this in my comment regarding stress tolerant crops. Even without such varieties during years of drought high crop yields can be obtained, thanks to the fertilizer and the high water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil.


Henk Breman


Fossil fuels and poverty reduction

Yesterday concerns were raised about the need to overcome structural problems, obesity, and conflicts over land reform if the future for agriculture is to be a bright one. Today the debate continues with three essays, all about the use of fossil fuels.

Modern agriculture is energy intensive, and this dependency pervades every stage of food production from field to fork. Lappé and McKibben are convinced agriculture could, and must, use less fossil fuel. Bindraban acknowledges the possibility but cautions that doing so may not reduce poverty and inequality. What do you think?

Poverty, Agriculture and Population

Why is there hardly any mention about population which is where the majority of problems arise from. Each individual should be educated to consider the implications of having large numbers of children in a family so that they can  voluntarily plan their family size to give their chuldren the besty chance in the future. Free family planning should be available from all goverments to its citizens - this is the only way to avoid even more catastrophies in the future. This is not about killing people or stopping people having children its just about a bit of self control for the good of our descendents and the planet.

No one-system fits all

The need for a Green Revolution in Africa is widely recognized. But while there is agreement on what is needed, there is not necessarily agreement on how to get there. What is needed is a significant increase in agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner. There is limited possibility to expand the amount of agricultural land and soil, water and biodiversity need to be managed wisely. Agriculture also has to become resilient, meaning that production systems are resistant, or can adapt to, the effects of external shocks like droughts, floods or price fluctuations.


The challenge that the international community, including the Netherlands, is focussed on is sustainably feeding a world population of 9 billion in 2050. Looking at Africa, though in exceptional cases (for instance in areas where labour is not sufficiently available) it might be that large-scale high-input agriculture can contribute to local food security, evidence from among others World Bank, IFPRI and OECD convincingly shows that investing in local market oriented, food-producing (and thus in Africa nearly always small-scale) family farms is the most effective way to reduce poverty and hunger and at the same time contribute maximally to agricultural growth. Training and extension will be crucial for this, as well as innovations that help farmers achieve better yields. Above all, farmers should be able to make a sustainable living from their business, so we need to ensure that production levels can rise beyond subsistence needs and produce finds its way to consumer markets. Of course, in the long run an agricultural growth scenario will more and more favour the most productive, efficient and innovative farmers, meaning that others will shift away from primary production, for instance into agro-processing, agro-industry and rural services. Investing in off-farm employment should therefore be part and parcel of investing in agricultural intensification.


Marcel Beukeboom,

Head of Food Security and Financial Sector, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Marcel Vernooij,

Head of Food Security and Agrocommodities, Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs

Criteria for choice

No one-system fits all


I agree with note of Marcel Beukeboom and Marcel Vernooij. However, I like to stress that once the goal is clearly formulated, as is done by them, it is possible to identify the system fitting best.

For improved food security and for poverty alleviation in sub-Sahara Africa, higher fertilizer use in an integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) context is a much stronger tool than the agro-ecological approach, proposed by Olivier de Schutter (UN Advisor) and others. This is well illustrated by the IFDC project CATALIST, focusing on the heart of Central Africa’s Great Lakes Region. Where the agro-ecological approach insists being able to double yields (a badly funded hypothesis), more fertilizer use in an ISFM context was able to inspire and to teach farmers reaching much higher yield increase and significant income increase. “So there is hope!” , the sigh of relief of many people.


Henk Breman, former CATALIST Coordinator, with 40 years of experience related to environment & development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Discuss how prices are set

I very much enjoyed McKibben's piece.  One element I'd like to see brought out in later essays is to look at how prices for farmers are set and also how much inputs cost.  We need to get beyond the facile production / feed the world debates.  My impression is that most successful smallholders in the global North are selling directly to consumers.  They have transitioned to being price-setters instead of price-takers.  Doing so liberates them from commodity markets' ups and downs and makes them more resilient.  It also implies a more general discussion about the economic and environmental values of localized versus globalized economies.  Splitting off the environmental debate seems a losing proposition as people will always come back to profit/loss, taking it as an assumption that these farmers are trying to produce as much maize/soy/sugar as possible given that prices are exogenous.

engineer solution

In my opinion

We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now!

At a scale required to accomplish this task :

Ethanol starves people : not a viable option.

Fracking releases methane : not a viable option.

Cellulose Bio Fuel Uses Food Land : not a viable option

Solar uses food land : Not a viable option

Wind is Intermittent : Not a viable option

All Human and Agricultural Organic Waste can be converted to hydrogen, through exposure intense radiation!

The Radioactive Materials exist now, and the Organic waste is renewable daily.

Ending the practice of dumping sewage into our water sources.

Air, Water, Food and Energy issues, receive significant positive impacts .

Reducing illness / health care costs as well !

Dennis Baker
* Creston Avenue
Penticton BC V2A1P9

a new agriculture

An elegant system of agriculture that is not mentioned much is permaculture.  I think that the time has come to shift away from annual plants in monoculture as the primary food production model.  Wes Jackson, the Land Institute, has been working for years on plant communities that support and sustain to produce food crops.  His model has been the tallgrass prairie and the resilience of perennial plants to survive over the long haul.  I had experience while serving in the Peace Corps of very elegant agro-forestry systems used by Mayan farmers.  Using food bearing trees in a diversified forest of layered planting, shade tolerant trees were under the canopy of the tall trees, food bearing vines and bushes were also planted in the mix.  Food systems in a world of changing climate will require very local solutions.

Harry E. Bennett, RPCV 04 Belize

Another point of view

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