Day 3: The Ultimate, Elegant Engineering Solution

Bill McKibben

Blog post by Bill McKibben

Founder of the grassroots climate campaign
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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