Jem Bendell and Regenerative Agriculture
Photographs by Kevin Redpath, taken at Glastonbury Town Hall June 18th 2023
The title for his talk was Ecological Wisdom in the time of Collapse, and though I’m not sure that’s what it was really about, nevertheless the end of industrial agriculture and food production was strongly signaled. The alternative was summed up in one of the promotional quotations at the front of the book, written by Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau, from Kenya: “Finally a Western environmentalist calls ‘bullshit’ on their profession … This book shows that instead of imposing elitist schemes and scams, regenerating nature and culture together is the only way forward. Let’s get on with it.”
When I have a Friday free I go to Plotgate Community Farm and volunteer to work there for the day; out of this came a little story that seemed to me to describe the regeneration of nature and culture together (https://unique-publications.co.uk/ecological-wisdom-in-the-time-of-collapse). It was published in The Glastonbury Oracle to help promote the conference in the Town Hall, and I got quite a bit of good feedback from it.
Breaking Together includes a whole chapter on ‘Food Collapse’, and a number of references to what must be the only viable answer, regenerative agriculture. Food production has grown enormously in the past 60 years, but almost entirely thanks to the availability of fossil fuels – including the manufacture of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. As he points out, “to do without such agrochemicals is possible but requires a completely different approach from industrial monocultures” (p 132). As several writers have highlighted, an agricultural system that uses at least 10 times as many calories as is supplied by the food that it produces is clearly unsustainable. That unsustainability is now reaching a critical point. “The current food supply of most of the world’s population is … utterly dependent upon resources that are becoming less easy to obtain, and which destroy the basis for that agriculture through contributing to climate change and poisoning the biosphere” (p 133).
He acknowledges that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is making efforts to support and promote what it calls ‘Agroecology’, with the proviso that the UN is also wedded to the expansionist monetary systems that prevail through most of the world. He goes to considerable lengths to show that a monetary system that relies on continuous financial growth will inevitably consume ever more fossil fuels, and he concludes that none of the measures proposed to mitigate their use can succeed in the long term without a radical change in the world’s monetary systems.
He attended a conference in Denmark where one of the keynote speakers was the indigenous scholar and activist Lyla June Johnson, who was sharing the results of her doctoral studies on indigenous regenerative food systems. The chapter written after hearing her speak, entitled Freedom from Progress, is for me the most interesting in the book. He concludes that humans are not innately destructive to the environment, as many believe, but that our species is naturally a beneficial ‘keystone species’ – meaning predators at the top of a food chain that hold everything else in balance.
With a variety of techniques and lifestyles, some of which changed with the seasons and other conditions, people were able to maintain their constructive relationship with the land they lived on for thousands, even tens of thousands of years. The modern concept of progress is just that, a concept, and – as he shows – not at all helpful. And as Lyla June made clear, life had not been without human mistakes and lessons to be learned, and then held within their oral traditions; but overall – before the modern era – our species had a beneficial effect on life. She described the world people lived in as ‘a beautiful garden’. And as Jem says, “The evidence is that we were a wild gardening species before we became an agricultural one. Which means we still are a gardening species at heart. All of us” (p 194).
Having understood all this, he set up (in Bali) “a farm that is designed to be not only organic and regenerative but also resilient to near-term climate change and disruptions to supply chains” (p 242). Nevertheless, what he learnt following his meeting with Lyla June he used principally as evidence that humans are not inevitably destructive to the environment. He did not go the further step of giving credence to the idea that ancient cultures and the nature of their relationship with the more-than-human world can provide us with viable ways to deal with modern-day problems. At least, he didn’t in the book. I was therefore very interested, the very next day after the Glastonbury conference, to attend a meeting at Plotgate Community Farm that also included microbiologist Jay Abrahams.
Jay has been working for thirty years with nature-based methods for dealing with sewage and polluted water. Most people have heard of reed-bed systems, but to produce the same benefits at scale he mostly uses constructed wetlands – the ‘Wetland Ecosystem Treatment (WET) system’. However, Plotgate needs a more sophisticated approach on land that they have recently bought, with multiple pollution problems including both chemical run-off from fields and intermittent discharge from a nearby sewage pumping station. The land is also potentially prone to seasonal changes between flooding and drought. He described a system called Chinampa, that he is confident in adapting for the purpose (https://www.britannica.com/topic/chinampa). This was originally developed by the Aztecs who used it to convert a large swamp into highly productive land, which became the basis for their empire. I believe this will show that ancient indigenous technologies can have very effective applications in dealing with modern problems.
Jem Bendell stated in his book, “I don’t think that my syntropic agroforestry organic farm is necessarily going to help me or my nearest and dearest live better as the society I live in becomes more unstable and eventually collapses. There are too many other people who are not growing their own food and I’m not going to try to fight them off if such a time comes” (p 266). But he had made clear that we need to do what is right, regardless of whether it works or not.
Like Dr Nyambura Mbau, I was impressed by Jem Bendell because he was the first establishment academic to step out of line and to tell us the truth, about climate change and now the general collapse of industrial consumer societies. That has been very important work, and it will probably need to continue for some time yet. But the collapse will leave us still needing food, and culture. I was encouraged by something he said right at the end of the conference, during the final plenary session. I must apologise if I have not got his wording quite right: “I’ve got to let go of the status conferred by being a successful academic. Instead, I should be a crap musician and a crap organic farmer – because that is where the joy lies”. When the time comes for him to do that wholeheartedly, I wish him all the luck in the world.
Jem Bendell’s talk in Glastonbury Town Hall is now available on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efhv0WNybuY
(Left to right): Rachel Donald, Jem Bendell, Amisha Ghadiali, Gail Bradbrook, Indra Donfrancesco.