Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth by Charles Massy is an inspirational, timely and significant book about one of the most important subjects facing the world. How are we going to feed the world’s growing population within ecological limits and regenerate degraded landscapes?
Charles Massy’s life experience and expertise make him ideally equipped to address this issue. He is a 5th generation Australian sheep farmer, scientist, and, as the book demonstrates, a gifted and evocative writer.
The book covers a lot ground but its key message is that the current industrial approach to agriculture, predicated on the notion that man should dominate nature, is unsustainable. This approach is degrading landscapes and soils, critically impairing their capacity to deliver ecological function and long term agricultural productivity. It requires high levels of fertilisers, chemicals and fossil fuels which leads to resource depletion, growing carbon emissions and farmers being increasingly dependent on suppliers of these inputs. It can also have deleterious impacts on human health.
The author illustrates, through multiple case studies, that alternative and viable agricultural approaches are being adopted which regenerate ecological function. These case studies cover a wide variety of practices and techniques, geographies and farming enterprises.
The technical aspects of the case studies are very interesting and informative. However, what really sets the book apart is its description of the cultural, philosophical and social factors that will be critical to determining whether there will be a successful, wide-scale transition to regenerative agriculture. The most perceptive and important insights from the book for me were:
- The need to combine scientific rationality and technological progress with ecological literacy. The book recognises (and, in fact, celebrates) the critical role of scientific method and rationality, and does not suggest that we should seek to abandon technological progress and innovation. Rather, it explains that the development of industrial agriculture (and industrialisation more generally) took place in a time when there was limited ecological understanding and literacy. Consequently, industrial agriculture’s methods and practices were adopted without awareness of their environmental impact. What is now required is an ecologically literate approach to harnessing technology and scientific method.
- Soils needs to be understood biologically. This a manifestation of the broader point about ecological literacy. “Soil” is comprised of a highly complex and dynamic set of living organisms, and its health depends on the vitality and balance of this biology. However, industrial agriculture has not traditionally focused on optimising the biological health of soils. Rather, there has traditionally been a more reductionist, chemical approach which has manifested in the extensive use of artificial fertilisers to support agricultural production.
- Social, personal and cultural barriers to change. Farmers face significant financial and technical risks in moving from traditional agricultural to more regenerative approaches. However, it is actually cultural norms, social pressure and personal identity that commonly present more profound barriers to change. In particular, deciding to transition to regenerative approaches requires farmers to break with practices and philosophies that are deeply ingrained in their personal, family and community identities and traditions, and to run the risk social opprobrium in what are often small communities. Interestingly, most of the farmers profiled in the book who have moved to regenerative approaches have experienced a personal or financial crisis or challenge that has acted as a catalyst for their decision to change.
- The importance of networks of support. Given the extent of the technical, social and cultural barriers to change, establishing networks and communities of practice to provide mutual support is critical to enabling farmers to transition to regenerative approaches.
So what does this mean for non-farmers, including the Cavalier clan.
- We need to understand and recognise the critical role of farmers in supporting the ecological health of the Earth, and empathise with the challenges they face in this context.
- We need to support farmers adopting regenerative practices. For example, purchasing their produce or supporting organisations that assist in facilitating regenerative practices (eg. Greening Australia and Tree Project).
- Adopting ecologically literate approaches in our own gardens, or supporting these approaches in our communities (this will be discussed further in a future post).
- Making lifestyle choices that will mitigate the demands we make of farmers – see previous post about moving to a largely vegetarian diet.
I hope Call of the Reed Warbler garners the readership, influence and profile it deserves.