Somebody call a plumber! The Mississippi River Basin needs fixing.
Industrial agriculture is rupturing the basin’s 3.2 million km2 of plumbing, leaking nitrates into the Gulf of Mexico, topsoil into waterways, and in general wreaking ecological havoc over an area that spans 41% of lower US and 1/8 of North America.
Industrial agriculture undoubtedly feeds a lot of mouths. But it also causes problems that are too complex, cover too vast an area, and involve too many people for there to be a single answer.
Our plumber won’t come from any particular government agency, green technology, or grassroots push. In fact, the solution won’t come from any one plumber at all but a dexterous and resourceful guild. They will be artisans with an impressive toolbox, and when the pipe wrench is missing will know who can loan another. And most of all, our plumbers will be skilled at putting the broken basin back together again, without making a fetish of the old ways.
The Mississippi River Basin has deteriorated over the last 50 years as industrial agriculture severed the links binding people and livestock, land and water, farmers and customers. In an essay titled The Vegetable-Industrial Complex, Michael Pollan, paraphrasing Wendell Berry, puts it best:
Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot.
Clearly, there’s some creative work to do, and, although we can learn from the past, we can’t go back to the old way of doing things. We need radical new solutions.
Green Lands, Blue Waters
Green Lands, Blue Waters is an ambitious long-term, non-regulatory strategy to restore the ties between forlorn farms and feedlots with Continuous Living Cover Systems based on perennial crops. Just of couple of years old, the effort is aiming high with a seemingly straightforward mission:
Green Lands, Blue Waters is a long-term comprehensive effort whose mission is to support development of and transition to a new generation of agricultural systems in the Mississippi River Basin that integrate more perennial plants and other continuous living cover into the agricultural landscape.
Green Lands, Blue Waters, however, isn’t interested in perennial crops per se, but in the ways these crops can unite a variety of stakeholders who might otherwise be adversaries: Farmers, environmentalists, state agencies, scientists, insurance companies, and the business community are all potential partners who can each find value in a vision to…
…improve water quality in the Mississippi River Basin, increase economic options and profitability for farmers, improve wildlife habitat, reduce flooding potential, strengthen vitality and quality of life of rural communities, and enhance human health.
Although it has something to offer everyone, Green Lands, Blue Waters isn’t a special interest group selling snake oil in the form of switchgrass and shrubbery. By virtue of the mutualisms present in a diverse membership, the real goal is to identify, create, and sustain opportunities for perennial agriculture where none yet exist.
No single group could possibly do all this, but then again Green Lands, Blue Waters is not one mega-organization. It is a motley network reflecting related but diverse goals.
Green Lands, Blue Waters' goal is to add value to the work of its participants — by integrating and coordinating their collective strengths and unique capabilities; by raising awareness and understanding of their programs and priority issues with diverse audiences; and by attracting new financial support for this shared work.
Players include five major land-grant universities, trade groups like the Minnesota Farmers Union, and national-level organizations like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Green Lands, Blue Waters director Helene Murray points out that members talk about the effort like it is their own, which is perfect from her perspective because, aside from being true, ownership solicits commitment and willingness to contribute to a common pool of knowledge.
Green Lands, Blue Waters, for instance, was instrumental in starting RiverMap.org, a resource where groups across the Mississippi Basin collectively create a publicly accessible, online database on activities related to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Another consortium project is turning social, economic, agricultural, and environmental statistics into a map of farming systems across the basin, which will help identify the most environmentally sensitive areas and those most ripe for experiments in Continuous Living Cover Systems.
Spreading information is important, but the crux of the effort is to produce new kinds of things—new kinds of crops, crop uses, and farming practices—and the economic and intellectual infrastructure to support them on both the front and back ends.
Up front, that means entrepreneurship and convincing funders to invest in research and development for a new kind of agriculture. Ultimately, the consortium envisions a self-sustaining next generation of agriculture, but outside funds must first jump-start the process. (The same is true for industrial favorites like corn, which receive vast sums in private and government funds, in addition to in-kind policy contributions that tilt the field in their favor.) Fortunately, the federal government and private funders like the McKnight foundation have already ponied up $10 million to support research and outreach (and revamp the website). On the back end, Green Lands, Blue Waters is finding buyers for new products. By looking at the front and back ends together, Green Lands, Blue Waters seeks to close the loop between buyers and sellers.
Aveda, for instance, is interested in developing a line of essential oils from hazelnuts. Others are looking into breeding perennial sunflowers and canola for conversion to biofuel use on the farm. Unlike the typical extension agency, however, Green Lands, Blue Waters isn’t a centralized selling a product. Rather it’s a hub, whose facilitating exchange between its members.
4 Points for Nested Activism
Green Lands, Blue Waters is just getting off the ground, and, although it’s too early to gauge its success, it points to some very new, very interesting avenues for change. On the surface, the effort looks like a sluggish version of network-centric advocacy.
…network-centric advocacy focuses on supporting individual engagement by connected grid resources (that may reside with individuals or organizations). The network-centric approach relies on dense communication ties to provide the synchronizing effects, prioritization and deployment roles of the organization. (excerpt from an insightful concept paper)
Network-centric advocacy is a fantastic innovation in many ways, and one that is also in its infancy. Nimble advocacy that leverages resources across a distributed network, however, is just one Green Lands, Blue Waters goals. The effort is really about positioning people to enact long-term change. Yes, it needs to dance to a short news cycle, but it also must trace the slower rhythms that drive big systems. To do this, Green Lands, Blue Waters builds knowledge for Continuous Living Cover Systems, cultivates the capacity of stakeholders to use that knowledge, and coordinates those activities while surveying opportunities for broad policy change.
I see four ways in which Green Lands, Blue Waters foreshadows a kind of “nested activism” that goes beyond network-centric advocacy by deliberately seeking synergistic connections between organizations working at different scales.
First, nested activism engages interests across multiple spatial scales and multiple political jurisdictions. It doesn’t recruit participants from a single spatial scale, like the watershed or basin. Nor does it look towards a single jurisdiction, like community activists, state scientists, or national NGOs. Instead nested activism blends the logic of bioregionalism with political realism by deliberately forging horizontal links within and vertical links across spatial scales and political jurisdictions. In the case of Green Lands, Blue Waters, a three-tiered network emerges: watershed-level learning committees, state-level coordinating committees, and a basin-level body with a national voice. Multiple scales and levels lend players secret allies who mount actions in places that those players can’t access themselves.
Second, it leverages mutualisms to create solutions. Nested activism is active, meaning it doesn’t just respond to problems but proactively creates solutions. It's one thing to identifying win-win relationships; it's quite another to make them happen. Synergies, however, are only possible if members are diverse. Getting together with people just like yourself too easily leads to monopoly, disenfranchisement, and battles over turf.
Third, what I’m calling “nested activism” aims for durability without ossification. One of the main problems with big non-profits is the tendency for funding cycles to freeze them into a risk-averse state. A lot of capital becomes tied up in slow-moving organizations, whose predictability opponents learn to outmaneuver. On the other hand, network-centric advocacy’s distributed capital is speedy but insufficiently coordinated to press for the kinds of structural changes so badly needed. By contrast, not-too-strong, not-too-weak links among diverse, nested actors encourage persistent alliances but also relinquish old ones that cease to serve their purpose.
Fourth, a flexible prolematique is essential for the first three points. In order to get initial buy-in from diverse interests, and to keep them involved over the long-haul, nested activism should encourage what in the lingo of science studies we might call the interpretive flexibility of a boundary object around which everybody can rally, even as they define it differently. In the case of Green Lands, Blue Waters, revenue-seeking investors, research-oriented academics, and election-minded politicians can gather around the object of Continuous Living Cover Systems for very different reasons. Nobody can define the solutions, or even the questions, from the outset; rather, they emerge from interactions within the network.
Green Lands, Blue Waters’ motto is to keep working lands working. What’s clearly not working is piecemeal thinking that sacrifices broadly optimal solutions for merely efficient ones. And master plans to deliver utopia hardly bear mentioning. Truly transformative solutions are harder, messier—nested, active, full of niches, and diverse. They balance compromise and collaboration. They are about creating a better world, rather than mending a broken one.
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Fantastic article, Chad. But when you say:
...Clearly, there’s some creative work to do, and, although we can learn from the past, we can’t go back to the old way of doing things. We need radical new solutions...
...can you explain why?
Of course, people understand that there are far fewer farmers now than 50 years ago, managing for much higher yields. But the "meta-pattern" you discuss, of a "cradle-to-cradle" use of animal waste on croplands, and crops back to animals - why would that be "an old way of doing things"? At this point, it could be a "radical new solution." Heck, it's right from the William McDonough and Michael Braungart canon.
We don't need industrial feedlot agriculture to feed people, and to provide prosperity to farmers. Really. There are entrenched interests working overtime to convince us otherwise, but the facts just aren't on their side. Smaller-scale farming, livestock on pasture, management for multiple goals - these practices may sound prosaic and old-fashioned, but done with skill, they're hyper-modern, complementing the work with essential-oil and biofuel crop sources that you cite. Even the "nested activism" which is your main topic has a precedent - it was called the Grange.
Network based advocacy definitely seems to be important for the future of civil society, at least while technology is moving in its current direction, giving more and more power to individuals for creating and finding information. However it still seems a ways from being effective. What does it need? I don't think its just a question of social norms...spreading the idea that creative advocacy will become more of an individual responsibility than the task of high-ranking employees of a few NGOs. (Although that's important, too). When everyone is looking for the best way to leverage their personal resources and expertise, we need better ways in this advocacy community as well as others to connect to others who can most benefit from our personal abilities. Some sort of social networking application maybe? Or something else entirely? We need better tools.
The challenge for first world farmers is the large control that corporation and governments have on the practice of farming.
Governments subsidize farming practices that require fertilizer & pesticide inputs and machinery to keep industries and corporatiions that provide those products up and running. Farmers are given tax exemptions and fixed rate loans to support this type of farming practice. Agrobusiness food is cheaper than organic because of the inter-locking network of subsidies. If you reduce the subsidies to industrial farming, then organic farming and the products becomes affordable.
Although you do have successful organic farmers, they are the exception and not the rule. If subsidies were given to organic farmers, or just eliminated for agribusiness, organic would grow faster than it is now and make the products of organic farming cheaper.
Keep the process up and running long enough erosion, nitrate pollution, water contamination and animal cruelty are taken away from the current system.
Interesting case study. Activism is changing, I believe for the better. It doesn't have to be our cause vs the world. There is always common ground and mutual benefit.
David, great points. I don't mean, however, to emphasize new products like essential oils and biofuels over tried and true traditional agriculture. That's why I say the past has plenty to teach us. The point though is that the reintroduction of "cradle-to-cradle" techniques can at best mimic the past because society is so utterly transformed (fewer than 1% of people in the US count themselves as farmers) that any solutions supporting "old ways" will have to be radically inventive by bringing together consumers and producers in new ways (or, better yet, by redefining what it means to be a consumer or producer).