Recording & transcript of my contribution to the International Society for Circular Economy Conference hosted by the Circular Economy Department on the Penryn Campus of Exeter University on 17th October 2022.
I begin with an introduction to myself as co-founder both of New Foundation Farms and of the Holos Earth Project which relate to each other in my life like temple and marketplace: sacred narrative in the temple and material sustenance through food, interaction with humans and nature via agriculture at the fault line of economy and ecology, humankind and the natural world and other fascinating dichotomies.
By way of a transcript
Today, I would like to explore ways of connecting dots in the outer world reality of farming,
and relate them to what we might call an inner “experience of the field”.
New Foundation Farms is what is sometimes called a disruptor enterprise.
Our ambition is to combine finance and knowledge to create change at scale.
The way we want to do that is by pursuing an extreme approach to regeneration which we call radical natural.
At a very basic level, it’s about moving from input-intensive to knowledge-intensive farming.
At this point, we have been a start-up company in an intensive R&D process. For now, we are more research, modelling and software than farming reality.
But we also now have hard funding in place and are in the delicate process of taking over a real regenerative farming operation with a farming team trained in holistic management on the ground which we expect to be complete within the next 6 to 12 months.
This is CowHow, our modelling software.
It is an application based on the possible symbiosis between economy and ecology which occurs when nature is the driver of profitability.
Its purpose is to design farms that are very profitable just through farming whilst at the same time radically improving ecosystem health.
In practice, this is about bringing together lots of different kinds of livestock with lots of different kinds of fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, cereals and especially 1000s of trees. All in one place. And according to what is called the holistic context: the in situ realities of natural and human resources, finance, markets, organisational and legal constraints, skillsets etc.
The farmer philosopher Wendell Berry talks about two kinds of health that we can’t avoid when we design farming systems.
He says, “Agricultural choices must be made by these inescapable standards: the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.” (ref #1)
In a long piece published by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (ref #2), I have looked into the economic theory and ecological strategies of regenerative agriculture.
Doing that made me deeply appreciate why Wendell Berry is right:
The only design factor in conventional agricultural thinking is not health but yield.
The problem with yield is that it measures the returns to land area and to labour.
It says nothing about profitability or health of farmers, food or ecosystems.
How might we design farms that can utilise sunlight, nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and water and combine them with the enormous latent reserves of nutrients and seedbanks in the soils?
The evidence from around the world is clear: when you combine ecological resources by integrating enterprises strategically to do exactly that, you can achieve dramatic reductions in infrastructure and input costs. Farms that practice this approach achieve higher levels of Value Add which translates into profitability.
They pursue a profit per acre strategy, and “the key to increasing profit per acre is diversity, grounded in biodiversity leading to diversity of enterprises” (ref #3).
We think of farming as stewarding abundant ecosystems that also grow food and other resources.
The resulting enterprise stack is not only highly profitable.
It is also a highly productive, circular, biologically diverse, antifragile, low input system.
Beyond biodiversity, stacking enterprises comes with the opportunity of stacking positive impacts at different scales from the soil and ecosystem through to human health, the economy, and society.
There’s a foundational connection between the food we eat and the system we live in.
Nutrient density and ecosystem complexity are directly related.
That’s why we’re called New Foundation
This fundamental connection between economy and ecology is also what lies behind Allan Savory’s Holistic Management which is all about seeing financial flows and wealth as, ultimately, dependent on plants. More specifically on photosynthesis which requires green plants growing in regenerating soils. (ref #4)
If you don’t know it, Holistic Management is a decision-making framework based on principles derived from observations about trophic systems above and below ground and how land responds to cycles of animal impact and periods of rest.
It’s not a prescriptive set of rules.
Rather, you have to be actively involved.
It’s a continuous action research programme.
It’s a foundational insight is that:
a holistic perspective in management is essential because nature functions in wholes and patterns. (ref #5)
There’s a problem with concepts such as wholeness, wholes and patterns. They put us on the uncomfortable edge between our left and right brain processes.
For example, when we use the word whole we look for a boundary, but its actually impossible to draw an exact boundary.
For one, wholes overlap in nested structures and nestedness leads to fuzzy boundaries.
Architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander suggested the concept of centres instead.
Everything exists as a centre in the particular portion of the world which it inhabits.
Entities have a field of centeredness which is an effect that falls off.
This immediately points to a larger pattern of things as nested centres, and the way a particular element fits into that pattern.
This led Alexander to understand wholeness as a structural phenomenon in space.
And he coined the term living structure for all the various ways in which entities are nested in and overlap each other as centres.
In this way, Alexander formulated a design theory that understands wholeness and living structure as dimensions in the outer physical world that correlate with our inner capacity to experience the field as more or less living and more or less beautiful. (ref #6)
For Alexander, living structure is something universal and all pervasive, existing throughout space, literally a cosmology that unifies the physical world and our inner world as a coherent fully integrated whole:
“Space is neither lifeless nor neutral, but a living structure capable of being more living or less living.”
This way, “living structure” is both the central quality and root criterion of life and spirit in human beings, in towns, buildings, wildernesses, in nature, in the universe.
It is like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics: both static structure and dynamic process at the same time.
Thinking about systems and scale, this is about as comprehensive as it gets. (ref #7)
The living structure that is immediately relevant to us humans is referred to as a “lifeshed” by the US-based regenerative practitioner and thinker Ethan Soloviev.
“The ‘Lifeshed’ is like a ‘watershed’, except that all life is seen dynamically working as one, instead of fragmenting ‘water’ away from ecological, geologic, social, and cultural systems. Each lifeshed has its own unique ‘essence’ – a singular and un-fragmentable core way of processing and generating life. Everything is considered in terms of its contribution to and reciprocal relationship with the unique lifeshed in which it lives.”
Alexander said of living structure that it can be “more living” or “less living”.
This correlates with what Soloviev calls the regenerative continuum:
all our actions exist somewhere along the continuum between degeneration and regeneration.
So, how do we do regeneration? (ref #8)
Unfortunately, but also thankfully, people seem to be mean very different things when they use the term regeneration.
Soloviev makes some pertinent observations about how we might engage with regeneration on a scale of four different levels:
The Functional becomes the Integrative and via what is described as a “mindset shift” to the Systemic and Evolutionary.
At the functional we’re working with a set of best practices determined by someone somewhere else. I apply them on my farm which I see as having a linear relationship with the supply chain. My world is organised in a human-centric way.
At the evolutionary level, my agency is vested in the here and now and my relational engagement with the shared lifeshed. My thinking is concerned not with adhering to best practices but to the real outcomes I can affect through my understanding of ecological patterns. I recognise myself as part of a larger-than-human-community. (ref #8)
This mindset shift is a a significant transition from outer agency to inner agency which occurs when “We as human beings begin to see ourselves as nature itself, understanding that if we seek to develop the landscape we must also develop ourselves.”
Looking at things this way leads to a fundamentally different way of seeing and being in relationship with what is around us. (ref #8)
This sliding scale brings us to the same edge I have described before between our left and right brain structures in the context of wholes and patterns.
To my mind, I haven’t come across a better articulation of the relationship between inner and outer landscape than this quote by Iain McGilchrist:
“The qualities of the world that come to your attention are determined by the qualities of the attention you bring to it.” (ref #9)
Bringing all of this together, I will turn to an Ecological Health Assessment tool which comes from Holistic Management. It is called Ecological Health Index (or EHI for short).
It is based on two key concepts: the four ecosystem processes and environmental zones/ecoregions.
Every ecology exists courtesy of four universal ecosystem processes:
The energy cycle courtesy of the sun and made possible especially through the versatile and catalytic Carbon atom,
The water cycle within which the energy cycle is embedded on planet Earth,
The mineral cycle which flows within the carbon flow of the energy cycle,
Biodiversity aka community dynamics.
In different regions of the world, the living structure of our lifesheds finds different expression in the field according to climate, geology, altitude, rainfall patterns, sunlight hours and so forth.
For Europe, these patterns form 13 Environmental Zones or Ecoregions. (ref #10)
Now, the ecoregion concept allows us to understand what what healthy and unhealthy patterns look like and how they are constituted within each ecoregion.
There are two ecoregions in the British Isles: Atlantic North and Atlantic Central.
We are, right now, in what is called the Atlantic Central ecoregion, and it is subdivided into steady states, seven of which are relevant to agriculture:
- Deciduous forest
- Wooded pasture
- Meadow which is subdivided into grass dominated pasture and herbaceuous hay fields
- Arable land
Obviously, we find some or all of these ecosystem states in other ecoregions as well but their characteristics such as available sunlight, temperatures, for example, will have very different characteristics.
Each of the seven steady states of our ecoregion are interconnected and every piece of land is moving towards one or the other state, continuously.
If you’ve ever gardened or farmed, you will know what I mean: there’s the day when your patch is overgrown with weeds, the crop infested with pests, or the soil capped to protect the microbiology below ground.
The transition from one steady state to another requires energy. More energy is less likely. Less energy more likely.
Armed with an understanding of how these energetic transitions work and the right tools, we’re not trapped between arable or cattle farming and rewilding. We can go from one to the other using farming systems.
By tools I mean things that humans manage landscapes with such as
- Inorganic and organic fertiliser applications
- Pesticides, fungicides,
- Brush removal
- Animal impact through grazing and also through microbial activity in the soil, fungi to microbe ratios, bees, wildlife etc.
And then there’s the most widely underestimated tool of all:
Rest is not when we waste the land, or nothing happens. Rest is when we allow the ecosystem processes to do something all by themselves. It is a vital tool underutilised to everyone’s detriment. Regeneration in farming is actually dependent on cycles of disruption and rest periods. (ref #11)
The Ecological Health Index is a visual assessment methodology which relies, principally, on your eyes.
It comprises 15 above ground indicators which include things like the percentage of bare soil, the presence of functional groups of plants such as forbes & legunes, trees & shrubs, the presence of litter and dung and their decomposition and incorporation.
Each of these 15 indicators can be mapped against the healthy and unhealthy function of the four ecosystem processes.
Bare soil has the greatest waiting of all factors.
Fascinatingly, these above ground patterns correlate with below ground soil properties. One more way in which systems reflect at different levels of scale.
When you do this first, you’ll have a pencil and a scorecard. But it will becoming increasingly intuitive. You begin to relate to the patterns in the land.
When we’re done, we add up the individual scores to a single number and we can suddenly understand the relative health of the land we are on. And better still, because of the connection to the ecosystem processes, we can now make management decisions. Do we need impact? Do we need rest? (ref #12)
This may well have felt like a bit of a wild rumpus but I hope I have been clear enough in my intention.
This was to point towards a connection between inner and outer landscapes and show how this relationship can meaningfully influence our interaction with the natural world also in farm design and in very practical ways.
For example, this can allow the simultaneous optimisation for profitability and ecosystem health.
I briefly mentioned Soloviev’s observation of a mindset shift which is essentially an inner transformation towards “experiencing the field” in unique ways sensitive to the local context ways which, nonetheless, can be captured in objective ways and enable decision making in land management.
Alexander’s concept of a universe pervaded by “living structure” which can be more living or less living, allowed the insight that what is more whole is also more alive and can be perceived as more beautiful.
In closing, I will quote Christopher Alexander once more:
“There is available to us, a form of transformation which, each time it is applied, extends and enhances the wholeness of the land, and the act of using this process of transforming puts us in touch with ourselves. This means that it makes the land of the Earth become more and more deeply connected to ourselves. An environment, when made in this way, may even be regarded as a vision of our inner selves.”
It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for your attention. (ref #13)
#3 – Webster, Ken & Johnson, Craig: ABC&D
#6 – Urban Science | Special Issue : New Applications and Development of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order (mdpi.com) Especially noteworthy is this one:
Living Structure Down to Earth and Up to Heaven: Christopher Alexander (mdpi.com)
#7 – Alexander: As before
My own photo Guggenheim, Bilbao
#8 – https://ethansoloviev.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Levels-of-Regenerative-Agriculture.pdf
#9 – McGilchrist, Iain (2019) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.
#10 – Metzger, M.J., A.D. Shkaruba, R.H.G. Jongman and R.G.H. Bunce, 2012. Descriptions of the European Environmental Zones and Strata. Wageningen, Alterra, Alterra Report 2281.
Savory Holistic Management as before.