City life 3.0

On the surface, urban life appears to be very deeply compartmentalised, when large populations find themselves living cheek by jowl while maintaining social separations, such as class, race or status. However, there is no separation in nature, the planet has a single atmosphere, a single ocean, not to mention shared land masses. Ultimately, all nature’s resources are shared, with an often over-generous share being taken by humanity. The planet does not respond or challenge this phenomenon, but continues to meet all demands made of it, by human and animal alike, on a first come, first served basis.

Wherever humanity has left the by-products of its plundering, such as ash, exhaust gases or radioactive residues, these have accumulated and degraded down the centuries. Nature does not judge polluters, just keeps their dirty little secrets on view for all to see. To avoid eternal shame, humanity actively needs to work in harmony with nature, instead of emptying the sweet jars in the planetary candy store.

There have been civilisations which have lived in harmony with the natural world, spanning millennia, sadly we have very limited knowledge of their cultures, or indeed the roots of their eventual demise. Managing soil fertility was doubtlessly a cornerstone of their endeavours, making a closer study of the Indore project a high priority. It is time for subscribers to unpack Sir Albert Howard’s legacy.

City life 2.0

Food production has to compete fiercely for space in any urban environment. In a bid to escape these constraints, some food producers have gone up in the world, literally. Welcome to the world of vertical farming, a high tech adaptation of hydroponics, in which plants are raised in row upon row of troughs, each level illuminated by a blend of artificial lights that add up to a passable semblance of continuous light. Vertical farming has the squeaky clean credentials of a rising star in the food industry, earning extra points for season-free crops of strawberries, salad leaves and baby spinach leaves.

Converts and supporters of vertical farming point to the careful use of environmentally friendly electricity, the green credentials of the indoor space management in commercial growing operations that can supply high grade salad crops to supermarkets in a continuous production cycle.

The BBC has visited a leading exponent a number of times. Here is what they reported in August 2022 ( The Bristol-based Jones Food Company is preparing to launch the biggest vertical farm in the UK. There is a lot of high tech green know-how at work in the business. However, while its carbon footprint is doubtless beyond reproach, one is left wondering whether there is any role for nature in this high tech warehouse. After all, there is no commercial requirement for nature to be a part of any business plan.

The Jones Food Company website argues that its core business is farming sustainably, without some of the “hazardous substances” associated with field farming. By cleaning and reusing water up to 30 times, water intake is one tenth of what a conventional field crop would need. JFC also argues that in-house water hygiene allows the company to operate without toxic crop treatments, saving money and improving the flavour of crops.

This is an activity that sets out to be part of the solution, if not all of the solution, rather than any kind of problem. The basic assumption that what goes on in the wider world is either too distant or irrelevant does not hold water. There is a duty of care to the planet to give some thought to the whole ecosphere, when planning what goes into a growing space, however small.

Seen from that angle, the emphasis changes in a subtle shift towards a planetary view. To be sure, assuming that the vertical farmer is so close to her customers that food miles cease to be an issue, whereas procurement of fluorescent tubes probably requires a longer trip around a continent or two. It may be that the calculation of food miles needs to be done on the basis of inputs as well as outputs.

City life 1.0

The foundations of any society must needs be its harmony with, for want of a better term, nature. There is simply no way we can live outside nature, so we have to recognise that we are part of it and live accordingly. This is easier to say than to do, so my apologies for not having ready answers to the torrent of issues such a line of thought unleashes.

The inescapable paradox is that our cities are built to normalise anthropocentric lifestyles. Nobody is to blame for such a situation, it has just happened this way and would probably do the same again if we were to reinvent industrial society. In simple terms we lack the skill set needed to give the natural world a proper hearing and it is a moot point to suggest that we just need time to do so. We have had an incentive to learn for millennia and have spent that time dipping into finite planetary resources in the process.

The earliest settled cities devised elaborate systems for governing both city and hinterland, documenting their transactions with painstaking detail. Literacy was restricted to the ruling class, but every citizen had to be environmentally savvy if the metropolis was to survive, let alone prosper. History bears witness to the long term success of Sumerian cities such as Girsu or Ur, where archaeologists talk of habitation during millennia, an achievement that is unlikely to be matched by the modern industrial economy. Stumbling from environmental crisis to ecological impasse, the industrial economy has played fast and loose with nature, not to mention urban food chains, the subject of this blog.

More pressing than to understand the fate of early agrarian societies is to understand what they did correctly for centuries. There is good reason to suppose that they had sustainable sanitation of a sort that Sir Alfred Howard envisaged while working on the Indore project. A renewable, natural cycle producing humus within a month would go a long way to explaining the soil’s fertility in the world’s longest-surviving agrarian societies.

The Indore project

Sir Albert Howard,
pic Wikimedia

Between the wars, Sir Alfred Howard was the director of the Institute of Plant Technology Indore. Later hailed as a guiding spirit of the organic movement, Howard’s vision of agriculture was one of interlocking sub systems that functioned as an integrated whole.

Between 1924 and 1931, Howard perfected the Indore process, naming it after the state in Central India where he had been working. The Indore process takes animal and/or human waste and combines it with vegetable waste to generate field-ready humus in just four weeks. The process runs at such a high temperature range that bacteria and insect larvae are literally cooked to death.

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Fire power

In his book Against The Grain, James C Scott discusses the use of fire as a tool to manage the environment. Through clearing rain forest with fire, prehistoric hominids discovered that the burnt areas recovered rapidly, becoming more attractive to the species that were hunted for food. Attracted by tender green shoots and lush grass, grazing herbivores were followed by their carnivorous predators, much to the satisfaction of the hunter gatherers.

By creating productive oases of harvestable food, the hominids no longer needed to travel so far to find food. The pressing need to move on and start looking for fresh sources of food started to lose its urgency. But Scott has a more intriguing discovery to relate.

The closest relative to hominids is the chimpanzee, which has a significant difference, despite sharing almost all its genetic traits with humans. The chimp’s digestive system is elaborate and robust, allowing it to digest cellulose and tough vegetation. This heavy duty digestive function is absent in homo sapiens, Scott argues, because the use of fire for cooking food makes it easier to digest. It is as though homo sapiens has externalised the digestive functions by cooking on fires.

Having made the transition to a lighter, swifter digestive system, humanity is not going to reverse the process any time soon. Humanity is committed to maintaining a pattern of routine burning in the rain forest, just to carry on eating. We are now dependent on the restraints that we took on willingly millennia previously and are irrevocably committed to cooking and eating food, ranging over shorter distances than before. The domestication that came with fire changed humanity’s future development.

What “by numbers” is about

Across this website, readers will have seen posts such as butter by numbers or cheese by numbers. The purpose is not spelt out in these posts, so here is the thinking behind the “by numbers” coverage.

First, most of the figures cited go back to the end of the 20th century and are volume measurements. The choice of tonnages over the more usual measurement of currency is intended to give an idea of the additional capacity that imports generate for their economies.

In its simplest terms, importing food occupies production capacity the exporting country cannot use for the local economy. For countries like New Zealand, rural populations are so sparse and urban populations are so far apart that this is  not a problem.

Market gardeners close to urban centres in countries such as Kenya, on the other hand, can find themselves left with crops of green beans for which they have no local outlet. Having promised to grow premium vegetables for affluent industrial economies, there is no wriggle room for producers if  retail customers change their minds.

By looking at tonnages, it becomes possible to calculate the agricultural resources that are occupied by export production.

The use of data going back to the late 1990s is a reflection of the fact that multiple retailers invested heavily in electronic point of sale and data management for food sales during the early 1990s. The later years of the 1990s mark the moment that the results started to become visible.

Dietary gold on trees

pic Wikimedia Commons

Today (Friday November 26) is World Olive Tree Day, as growers in the northern hemisphere prepare to pick the next crop of olives. More than two thirds of the world’s olive trees grow in the Mediterranean basin and survive thanks to their deep roots. Younger trees planted in more recent groves will often be irrigated until their roots have reached cooler, damp rock formations.

Olive oil ranges in colour from green to gold.

Olives are a winter crop: starting in November unripe green olives are gathered and pressed for distinctively strong, green oil. As the winter progresses, the olives darken and ripen, the oil changing to gold as the flavour softens with the fruit. The harvest continues into February and March, depending on varieties and locations.

Traditional olive-picking techniques needed the olives to be hard enough not to break up as pickers beat the trees with heavy sticks. Today, large groves are harvested with a mechanical arm attached to the trunk of the tree. The tree is then shaken vigorously, emptying the fruit onto large sheets spread out to catch the crop. The process is stressful for the tree, but is quicker than the stick-wielding villagers. The remaining winter months are a time of recovery.

Once picked, olives are fragile. Away from the tree, the olives start to accumulate free oleic acid as they oxidise during the different stages of processing. Only when the oil is extracted and stored under nitrogen can the oxidation be halted. The largest pressing plants, typically in Spain, where batches are consolidated and have more time to oxidise, face the prospect of minimising the effects as best they can.

Olives picked for the table have an additional constraint: unlike olives bound for pressing, every table olive needs to be visually perfect. To remove the stones from olives, the flesh needs to be firm and the olive must be unripe. To produce black pitted olives, green olives are treated to make the flesh black and then the stones can be removed mechanically. By the time an olive has fully ripened and turned black naturally, it is no longer possible to remove the stones mechanically, since the soft flesh just falls apart. The taste, however, is exquisite.

Settling down

Reading the preface of James C Scott’s book Against the Grain, I realised that it promises to live up to my expectations. Scott disentangles the timelines of settled agriculture, which is only possible with domesticated crops and livestock. The process of domestication was spread over millenia in the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates, starting around 8000BCE. Domestication was an essential step on the way to settling in a fixed location.

Establishing crop-fields attracted species that were later domesticated.

Establishing permanent crop-fields attracted wildlife such as ducks and other fowl that could, like fire or food crops, also be domesticated. Scott argues that the process of domestication is reciprocal, since humans adapted in subtle ways to the livestock they wanted to keep.

There is a lot of detail to absorb, so it will be a while before I return to discussing his analysis of the history of the region that later became Mesopotamia and Sumeria. Scott is published by Yale University Press.