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Romantic Agriculture

Iida Ruishalme

Monday, February 14, 2022

Dr. Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by returning guest Iida Ruishalme. Biologist specialized in biomedical research and environmentalist, a writer and a science communicator who I think is well known as the mind behind the fabulous blog thought escapism. If you are a dedicated listener to the podcast you will know that this is he does third appearance. Our first episode I think was fairly general on on thought scape ism and some of your ideas about environmentalism, some of your own development or thinking what what is thought scape ism as a verb. That was a really fun episode jump back there. We also did a an interesting one on your visit to Chernobyl, which I think was also I mean, for me pretty fascinating. You were on the other side of the wall from the melted down reactor with your finger hovering over the the fatal button that was pushed. There's lots of great anecdotes in that episode. So if you're looking for some light, fun listening, definitely recommend that one. But without further ado, welcome back to the podcast.

Iida Ruishalme  1:03  

Thanks so much, Chris. I'm Chris. only fair that I say Chris.

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:10  

I can never get it right.

Iida Ruishalme  1:14  

I'm so happy to be back. It's always nice to talk to you. And it's really fun to listen to your podcasts and great opportunity to have discussions about really interesting topics.

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:25  

Well, thank you so much for coming back and joining us. So today's episode, topic is organic agriculture. And I thought you know, you've been on the show a couple times you've been through the the self introduction, hoops. But let's sort of tailor a self introduction that ties into your relationship with organic agriculture and science communication. Go take it

Iida Ruishalme  1:48  

for you. Yeah, it's it's a very personal anchor for my science communication story. Because as a biologist, as an environmentalist, as a nature lover, it was sort of an automatic assumption that I that I absorbed that organic is the choice for environment. So I always bought organic. And then at some point, when I was trying to do science communication on vaccines online, people were arguing about food and saying that, you know, we can we only have so much rain forests, so we shouldn't do organic farming. And then I went, whoa, whoa, wait, wait, wait. Organic Farming is a good thing. So here, we have to have some good data to back the good sides of organic farming so that the discussion doesn't get too one sided. And then I went in look for those for those evidence that supported the good sides of organic. And then I realized that that was the first time I had ever done that, that I had actually just assumed that the must be so. And my story was quite a personal sort of, it was a very humbling, and it was disappointing, because I realized that they were actually big holes in my, what I had assumed he was and what he actually was. So it was sort of a rude awakening.

Dr. Chris Keefer  3:08  

It fits into, you know, for lack of a better word, what I'll call this sort of like a hero's narrative of a number of communicators, that I really respect. I'm thinking here of Mark Lynas, who started his career as an anti genetic engineering proponent, you know, became very concerned and interested in climate change, synthesize the best science around climate change, and then was challenged on his beliefs on genetic engineering. So I'm seeing a kind of a pattern unfolding here. And I'm wondering if it, you know, had a similar effect on you in terms of, you know, I find we hold a lot of positions as a default out of a sort of, for lack of a better word, want to call kind of a tribal affiliation? Was it? Was it difficult for you to kind of do this investigation published on this? Have you had blowback Are you just, you know, a brave communicator, and it rolls off your back, like, water off a duck's back?

Iida Ruishalme  3:55  

It was quite painful. Actually, it was something that I had always been doing because I want to do something good. And then it was, it was not comfortable to to admit that. Okay, so actually, that I held some pretty naive ideas without examining them. So it was, it was like, there was a couple of months when I went from buying as many organic things as I could, to like slowly thinking like, Okay, wait, maybe that's not the superior choice that I thought it was. And to realizing what kind of communication there was on organic and realizing that some of it was at odds with what I was advocating for the kind of scientific neutral mindset that I wanted everybody to hold. Yeah, so it was difficult. But then it it's also an uncomfortable situation because I had very much absorbed it because of my tribal affiliation, because of my, my natural group of people who was vegan environmental activists. The ecologist from the university. And everybody, there had just given me the impression that of course, organic is important, because otherwise we're killing our planet. And that was that was it. So I didn't feel I had to examine it. So then suddenly I was there. And I will say at odds with all those people who were my friends, so yeah, it was,

Dr. Chris Keefer  5:23  

you know, it strikes me, you know, in a world where I think we're increasingly aware that solutions to these wicked problems, like climate change, like agriculture, sustainability, like feeding 10 billion people, is very much a question of looking at things systemically, right, and that this is going to require change well beyond that of making individual healthy choices or consumer choices. But that being said, there is kind of an attachment there where there's a sense of agency, you know, how I spend my money is going to change the world that you can make these choices and have this kind of influence, I think, is probably an illusion. But I imagine that's something that's a little bit hard to let go of as well. Yeah, exactly.

Iida Ruishalme  5:59  

It was like my me and my, flatmate at university, we used to gather these these little, you had these little stickers on the food that you brought that was cropped in Swedish, that's like the demand that's extra super good, ecological, bio, and then you would gather those little stickers and you put them there and see as you bought more and more than this sense of accomplishment that you're doing something something good. And then it turns out not to be so simple at all. It is it is disappointing. I mean, yes, we need systemic change. But yes, we also need some individual triumphing over, feeling good about our choices. So it would be great to have something that's, that's really, that I can trust. Because then I then I stop trusting I realize the weight. They've hoodwinked me that they fooled me into this. And actually, some of those choices have made the world a worse place. So so I didn't want to do this. I've been fooled. So it was very, very eroded my trust to these labels. And I realized that, you know, it would be great if I could actually trust one of these. But it's, I've learned that it's rarely that simple. And we really have to look pretty carefully at it.

Dr. Chris Keefer  7:14  

Yeah, I mean, this labeling business becomes big business, right? I mean, I was looking at the valuation of organic agriculture. It was definitely in the 10s of billions, if not hundreds of billions. And yeah, you know, how it certified you know, what the, what the sticker signifies, is definitely prone to a lot of manipulation, as there's more and more financial interests, no doubt. Just as another aside, before we get into the meat and potatoes, and we're gonna sort of work through some of the background how this arose. We just did this interview. While I just did this interview with my mother on the history of romanticism, I show the be some tie ins there. And we'll, I think finish off by making some conspiracy comparisons and evaluating the claims the health claims and environmental claims of organic agriculture. But just as another little anecdote, something that I have came across before, but in preparing for this episode, it came into my mind again, which is an eating disorder called things called orthorexia. Have you heard of this? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it just go ahead. Go ahead, if you have any thoughts on it, but

Iida Ruishalme  8:13  

yeah, I mean, especially among young girls, where we're health becomes sort of this replacement for religion, you the more healthful you are, the better the more virtuous you are. And then this information that that everything you eat has toxins or some some dangerous elements, it and then you have to be hyper vigilant about the where your food comes from, and what kind of additives are there or what kind of pesticide traces might be there, and that you have to sort of, you have to monitor it down to such huge detail that it becomes really an obsessive kind of unhealthy mental set, when you look at your food, and this is what you think instead of instead of thinking like, wow, that's a nice looking broccoli. Let me eat it. No, it's

Dr. Chris Keefer  9:06  

are the tastes good? Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Okay. Well, I think that's a good, a good background or and sort of reintroduction. For the listeners. Let's, yeah, let's get into framing organic agriculture. You know, where it emerges from as a tradition. I mean, obviously, pre, you know, I'm trying to think of what the right term is to use, certainly not just pre industrial evolution, but pre sort of chemical industry, etc. There's this kind of idea in the organic movement that all agriculture was organic back then. And so perhaps there's a sort of returning back to the past, but I suspect things are a little more complicated in terms of its origins and sort of what it's what it's reacting to as a phenomenon that's become, you know, a major major industry. So yeah, let's give us your your sense about about where this concept of organic agriculture where this movement emerges from.

Iida Ruishalme  9:55  

Yeah, it was when I realized that hey, I've never looked for Are these evidence about organic, I realized that my assumption was that you were simply looking at environmental benefits, looked at what methods give environmental benefits, and organic was using those. And then I realized that wait, that this is not how organic came about, he was a, he was not about looking, defining certain environmental benefits and going then going for those, it was a lot more conceptual. And it goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, to this idea that, that the efficient and industrial and growing sort of more technical and product oriented view of agriculture was, was overlooking a lot of things, and it was causing a lot of harm. And that in order to undo that harm, we had to go back to a more natural way. And it was this naturalist idea that we have to look to nature, we have to look what how do plants grow there, and what kind of processes exists there. And we have to rely on that, that we can't let these artificial efficiency thinking, ruin our environment. And

Dr. Chris Keefer  11:23  

when I hear efficiency, I'm also thinking like productivity. Yeah, like feeding world famine used to be a pretty common recurring event. I think that throughout human

Iida Ruishalme  11:32  

history is definitely critical, because during this time, so in the beginning of the 19th century, we had the revolutionary thing of haber bosch reaction, harbor and Bosch gate came, discovered a way to produce nitrogen. So that you could actually synthetically produce it and give it to the crops instead of using manure, or compost or other sources of naturally occurring nitrogen. And I would say that the first sort of conference that sparked off organic lines of thinking was in almost direct reaction to this this harbor Bosch artificial notice that they felt that this was this was really bad and we should askew this artificial fertilizers and instead rely on what happens in nature. And it was the very influential thinker, and you know, occultist Rudolf Steiner, who organized the conference in then Germany, nowadays Poland, have more than 100 people, where he had apparently very charismatic and very inspiring lectures about his thoughts about philosophically What harmony must be about. And this wasn't based on on research or observation on what happens on a farm or in a field. This was this was based on exactly what you were talked with, with your mother literatury at least literature and cultural and analysis of of the times that when when there was the whole industrial revolution, that was efficient, and that was the focus on logic and rationality in science, but you felt like it left something behind and there was this, this wish to bring this something spiritual and mysterious and also something that's sort of like an A journey into the individual and into the sub subjective. So, these kinds of things that that people do have a very strong need of wanting to have this connection not not everything is clinical and well organized and efficient. So that this was lacking and something in nature would provide this something that was lacking. So it was very much a conceptual thing. And there was a lot of the principles at rural Steiner for instance said that that a farm should be a self contained individual that it's a you should you should treat it as a whole and everything that you need for farming you should possess within the farm itself. And this is in a way it says that the farm has to be there something missed some mysterious energies in a way the in the farm, at least Steiner thought very much so and not not all of his followers were as mystical as he was. But he also excuse rationality and science to the degree that you know, you are ignoring you you have the risk of ignoring basic arithmetic, that if you have a farm that's self contained, where if you take food out of the farm, what is happening To the self contained system, you're removing something. And if you only remove a resource from a certain system, then it becomes a mining operation, you're actually mining that system for some resource. If you want it to stay in equilibrium, then similar amount of the nutrients have to be returned. So you can only think of farming a farm as a self contained system, because then you're ignoring everybody who lives outside of the farm who also would like to have that food.

Dr. Chris Keefer  15:36  

It's it's really interesting, because there's this, I think this theory marks mentioned it very briefly, but this idea of a metabolic rift between town and country, I think, which speaks exactly to that, that you're extracting nutrients from the farmland, and they're just going into sewers in the city. And those nutrients aren't being recycled back to the farm. And of course, you know, there are things like I think it's called Nate soil in China that has historically been a big element of, I guess, closing that rift. But also inputs like before haber bosch, bat guano, and that whole, that whole trade, which I think bailed Europe out of out of some famines, probably in the 1800s. But yeah, it's it's interesting that that's actually you using human manure in organic agriculture is is prohibited. There's probably some health reasons for that, I'm sure there's ways to sort of treat things. But I thought that was really interesting, because you'd think, you know, that that would fit really well into these ideas of kind of a circular system or renewable ideas, or, you know, I just thought that was a kind of interesting aside,

Iida Ruishalme  16:35  

I think that this is actually the kind of holistic thinking that thinking of the whole that we really need, it makes complete sense that if we want to have nutrients in our food, and we want to continue growing them new nutrients, then we have to return our waste our nutrients back to the field, but it is not so simple, because of the rest medicines and heavy metals and stuff. So it because of our increased safety, understanding of safety and stuff like this, we have, we are cautious about how can we use this without introducing some some unhealthy elements from ourselves back there. But what I would like to say that what was positive about this reaction, or why I can completely understand this reaction, this this wanting to return to something more natural, was that, as you said, this was during the time when he was the industrialization era, it was when the the population was beginning to grow in more and more rapid rate. And even before the population growth really exploded from from 1950s or something, I think we have the highest increase. But already in the since the 19 7700s and 800, we have constant increase of the area of land use to farming. Especially because back in the day, farming didn't always used to be good for nature, we used to have lots of land, and we could use it until it was mined of its nutrients. And it no longer gave anything back because then we had lots of land and we could move on to the next plot. In Finland, you used to do a lot of what's called slash and burn agriculture, that you would just burn a plot of land plot of forest, and then the ash would have lots of nutrients for the field. And then you would farm that for a time. And then when it was no longer very productive, you could leave it to rest while you burned small forest. So this was this was an easy solution for people at that time, and there were less people. So we have lots of land dues on but as you understand that when there's more people and we need more and more food, and we don't have as much time to let them rest and come back to fields, after they have managed to accumulate more nutrients than we need to, to convert more land to fields. And then seeing this happen in in lots of large parts of the world. I mean, Europe has been mostly deforested. Yeah, during a long time, but also there were big economical, ecological and economical things that happened in the US there was for instance, the dust bowl that you started farming in large in large areas. And you did it it with methods that turned out to have really bad consequences. For instance, to to when you have a dry time and storms come and the dust from your fields, the soil that used to be your soil becomes dust, and is deposited. It was it was a crazy time of doing few few years when there were so many dust storms that that sort of buried hold. farms and bankrupted loads loads of farmers and in impacted the the economy of the whole country. So there were bad things happening with farming, because we were growing so quickly, and both population and our farmland. So it's completely understandable to be to get concerned and say the hey, something, we have to think about this something has to be done differently. And another thing that was happening, which is so this in the beginning, when you when haber bosch discovered a way of producing artificial synthesizer, artificial fertilizer, since then, that was perceived as something really bad. And then when a couple of decades later, you had more and more artificial new pesticides. That was another big reason for concern. And those became the leading tenets of organic that you want to react against those, you don't want those because they're artificial, and you want something more natural instead. But during that time, when we use those pesticides, up to say, the 70s or 80s, we hardly had actually any regulation at all, or consciousness about, hey, could there be some some ill effects of these, this substance that we're using, so it was completely rational to be concerned?

Dr. Chris Keefer  21:31  

Right, it's it's very interesting, there's some commonalities that you'll see within the agricultural world that that are applicable to the energy world. And one of those in doing some research about this. And I'm not sure how much at the time that was a concern. But one of the one of the commonalities I saw was this preoccupation with inputs like haber bosch, and chemical fertilizers being sort of dual use technologies that arose out of wartime applications. Of course, the production of ammonium nitrate by haber bosch was mostly to, you know, for feedstock into explosives and bullets and things like that, I think, in the UK, they were still using for their nitrogen source guano. And they could do that, because they had this, you know, Navy that could, you know, gather the stuff from faraway lands, like, like the coast off of Peru, but also, you know, a lot of the organophosphate pesticides arising out of, you know, chemical weapons, essentially, are nerve gases. And so that was sort of one of the reasons given in this lecture, I was watching to be, you know, for organic agriculture, almost to be kind of a peace movement as well. And that just had such overlay to the world of nuclear where, of course, you know, nuclear energy is haunted by its association as a dual use technology with nuclear weapons. I just, I'm not sure if that was a sort of historically, of historic relevance. But I'm interested in why people that time were reacting so strongly against the haber bosch process.

Iida Ruishalme  22:55  

Yeah, I mean, I would say that Hubbard Bosch is a bit more mystical to me, because because, apart from bombs, which you still can see is a completely separate thing from from using them on fields. I think it's much, much more logical, much, much closer Association, when you look at pesticides, and you realize that they were used in the Vietnam Boer War. And that, then, with this association, these same compounds can be used on fields, it just some of the fathers of organic agriculture, talk exactly against this kind of like Albert Howard, British botanist, and talk to against using poison sprays. So this is the image that they're they're reacting against. And it's, it's, I would say that it's a completely natural reaction against these kind of horrible associations. And if taking this step back and saying, Hey, wait, wait, there may be some ill effects, which think about this, we can't just use them recklessly. That is the here I'm 100% with them. And this is where I think that I had, I had thought that obviously this doesn't mean that, that you buy into a blackened whiteness of the worldview, that these kind of compounds can never be used in a way that has actual benefits for humanity in nature that you can't, from the fact that something can have harmful effects, you can draw the conclusion that he always has to have harmful effects no matter how it's used. But this kind of,

Dr. Chris Keefer  24:41  

especially as a class, right, because you can, you can sort of write off certain insecticides that have very few redeeming qualities or being a person because we've made much better versions of them. But I think the issue with the dogmas of organic agriculture is that they've closed themselves off entirely to for instance, any any synthetic inputs or later on In I think the 1980s having a moratorium on genetically engineered crops as well. I think that's where the that nuance comes in.

Iida Ruishalme  25:10  

Yeah. And sometimes I think that it's actually, it's actually something that I love about humans that we work so, so well on stories or narratives. So we had the narrative of the Enlightenment era that we have this new progress that we're making, because we, man or human, thanks, human is a logical, rational animal, and we can, with science, we can have these breakthroughs. And then you have this, this certain story, that after a while, becomes a bit dry and one sided, and you don't want that to be the only story. And then you have this other story of the romanticism time of, of bringing back the mysterious connection to nature and appreciating this, something else than that, then this clinical efficiency in logic, but giving space for something that we all I think need for to flourish as human beings that we're not only only this logical boxed in rationalizations, but we have some we can have something else, which is great. But then you have this story of of venerating nature. And then you stick to that story. And it becomes nature, only natural things can can be the truly good things. Already the one of the fathers of organic agriculture, who really influenced the Rodale Institute in us who was one of the five founding members of the International, I form, international organic Care Association, they were talking about the fact that that nature was the supreme farmer, that we already have the crystallized information of how to farm in a forest, we know. And, and, and it's like, I actually remember the forest as well, I have a spiritual connection to nature, I have these religions wonderful, you know, naive kind of feelings of bliss when I'm in nature. So I very much sympathize. I'm big nature lover, I love that. But still, I realized that nature does not have that perfect solution of how we can feed all the all the malnourished people living in poverty, the forest does not hold that answer because the forest is not there. To solve that problem, it's solving its own problems. Or in fact, one of the big realizations that I had for my for my elementary school biology teacher, that plants don't even have problems. Having a problem at all, is a human concept. Organism just react and adapt to their situations. And there, they do create these wonderful networks that work really well together. But it's not a problem for that system, if it's disrupted or if a plant dies. But we think it's a problem. If human humans have to die out of hunger. So we want to do something for humanitarian reasons, that makes sure that people can actually live well nourished. Not only that people can be in a beautiful forest and not get enough to eat. I mean, it's nature is not solving that problem for us.

Dr. Chris Keefer  28:39  

It Yeah, it has big overlays, I think with the metaphor of the Garden of Eden. And I think a more accurate term than organic agriculture might actually be romantic agriculture, arising as it does out of out of that reaction of the time. And it's, it's interesting that the origins intellectual origins are very Western. And the market nowadays is very western as well. I mean, I should say wealthy countries, right. I think the the market shares North America, the EU, Australia, I mean, I'm sure there's there's budding organic, agricultural markets in other wealthy countries, but it's seems to be very much a feature, you know, as the movement itself, not necessarily, you know, the methods that that may exist, say in in areas that have not yet been touched by the Green Revolution, or, or enhanced productivity tools.

Iida Ruishalme  29:28  

There was actually in the beginning of Albert Howard, who I mentioned, and another one of those early 1900, it's 1900. And it's one 920. Right? So it's 20. Up to I've always confused with welcome,

Dr. Chris Keefer  29:46  

year 19 century

Iida Ruishalme  29:48  

20. Thereby about we had some English men who were influential organic farming but who had actually taken inspiration from India. They had been in the as agricultural advisor in India and and had thought that what's happening back at home is destroying nature, and what the Indian peasants are doing is a lot better and we should learn from them. And then they took it with them. And it was sort of like this early adaptation as well of the Oriental. A bit New Agey, kind of that the Orientals have this unspoiled philosophy, instead of all these science, people who are who are ruining things in the West. So, so they're some of the the Eastern influence, but it was very much, you know, elite white men who took those ideas and put them into action in in Europe. And in the US,

Dr. Chris Keefer  30:46  

from what I understand there's, there's kind of two schools of thought that, that meld together into the modern organic agriculture movement. And that's sort of the Rudolf Steiner, kind of mystic. I mean, he talks about planting according to astrological calendars about sort of non physical beings, maybe fairies and things like that, that are involved in, in optimal production, elemental forces, etc. So there's this kind of biodynamic side, and then there's one that's very fixated on soil and soil quality. And I think we were talking in the before recording, or do we call it hummus or humous? Or what's the pronunciation but the fixation on soil quality? Right, and that's very understandable, you know, in the context of dust bowls, or, you know, exhausted soils in Europe depleted of their nutrients, the metabolic rift, etc. But it's does that accurate that there's Yeah,

Iida Ruishalme  31:36  

exactly. There's there was the UK and South African soil associations. And then and also the, the Rodale Institute Quest was quite inspired by these thoughts about the hummus in the organic content in the soil and composting how important composting is. And what I thought was was absolutely, completely correct. That the Albert Howard said was that he was really he was really miffed with the haber bosch reaction. And he was really miffed with the fact that agronomist had realized how much the NP key and PK conundrum that you need nitrogen, phosphorus, and wait, what's it in English, potassium, potassium, right? And, and you need those to the plants. And that's it like that, it stops there, the math is just you're applying none of those, and plants come out, and you have your equation. And they were really frustrated with the fact that no soil is not only those three nutrients, you also have the organic content you have the microbes in the soil, you have a biological stuff is happening there. It's not just chemistry, biology plays a role. And this is completely sensible. And yes, biology plays a big role. And of course, we can ignore it. And until the soil health part was a really rational reaction, romantic, but also rational reaction to what was happening at that time, and to Dustbowl and everything else like this, that, hey, we have to think about soil, not just in the way of how much fertilizer do we apply? agro chemistry?

Dr. Chris Keefer  33:17  

Yeah, yeah. So let's let's just talk, I guess about some of the core sort of methodology of organic agriculture, and maybe sort of compare and contrast that with. I mean, I don't really think it was worthy of a compare and contrast, because I think you've argued this as well. But like, organic agriculture, like you've made a Venn diagram, where it's a little circle inside of a much broader circle, that they're not necessarily in opposition to one another. Although, you know, organic agriculture has some pretty strict precepts. And even I think the fair to call dogmas. So what are some of the, thou shalt and thou shalt nots of, of organic agriculture?

Iida Ruishalme  33:55  

Yeah. So so the, the main principle is that you should try to use natural methods. And this is a problematic thing to begin with, because natural is not a defined concept, right? But it's on our everyday sense. We have more or less idea of what we think what feels natural. And that means that these kind of agrochemicals that we learned to synthesized in the lab are bad, we should not use them, period. And then instead, we should use the natural variance. So the biggest difference is really the fact that you try to use manure and compost and things like this and you have to use only pesticides, which somehow are not considered synthetic. You can still have a lab involved in processing in producing these pesticides. So this is I think, where the line gets blurry for me. But if you can associate this pesticide with something that occurs naturally, if you can extract it from a plant, if you can, if it's an essential oil, if you can extract it from soil bacteria, then it's alright to use those kind of parasites, then there's lots of good things, which again, yeah, as you said, organic is sort of a limitation that you should leave lots of stuff outside which other farmers can use and say that we are better because we don't use that stuff. But then lots of good concepts, that what you should be proactively doing as well. For instance, paying attention to beneficial insects that can that can help you control pest levels that you have their natural predators present that you have plants in nearby that actually are good host for for those kinds of insect insects that help you.

So yeah, it's really this. Don't use synthetic lab lab. Produced means that is the big thing. They are completely, they're always complete lists of what exactly is approved, and what not. And these can actually differ quite a lot, depending on which organic label in which country you're in. So it's not completely clear cut. But there is a big divide, trying to say that, on this side are the synthetic stuff on the side are the stuff that we can use, which is

Dr. Chris Keefer  36:36  

a framework that I found a framework that I found to be very useful, came to me from this guy, Robert psych, I think I'm pronouncing that name properly now. He wrote a book food 5.0. And the sort of five stages of agriculture that he discusses are sort of a muscle powered stage, you know, human and animal muscle. That's kind of what we had a mechanization stage that accompany the industrial revolution, a chemical era, a genetic engineering era, and now sort of a precision agriculture era where we're using a lot of data and analytics to optimize and really reduce a lot of inputs of more harmful substances and economize and things like that. Mechanization is not something that organic agriculture seems to push back against a lot. Some of their methods are involve actually a lot of tillage to turn the soil and put the weeds underground or even flame weeding, using hydrocarbons to, you know, flame throw and torch weeds. That's all seem something that's quite unnatural to me or doesn't fit within that romantic vision. But I guess, if you set up a certain rulebook, you find creative ways to stay within the rules. So mechanization Okay, is that is that correct? Or is there any pushback there? I mean, certainly, it's a more human labor intensive form of agriculture. And I know, one of the other themes that I saw is, is that, you know, the one of the selling points of agriculture organic agriculture advocates is that it's less fossil fuel intensive. You know, there's a preoccupation with the fact that in the good old days, you know, the calories in calories out, maybe were even or even higher in terms of production. And now it's something like seven to 10 calories of energy in mostly in the form of fossil fuels to get a calorie of food out. And that's pitched as one of the reasons why, you know, non organic agriculture is not sustainable. What are your thoughts there?

Iida Ruishalme  38:24  

Well, I think that's a sort of complicated question, because you have, of course, you use energy. If you're, if you're relying on synthetic and select synthetic fertilizers today, I can't say synthetic, and lab made other stuff, you you, you need energy to run those labs, you need petrochemicals to as your starting materials and so on. So you use energy. But of course, they it makes a big difference how the energy is produced. So here we cross over to the energy side as well, that we realized that in many sectors, in order to make our lifestyle more sustainable, if we have more clean energy, we can actually help several other sectors, clean up their act, we can have more recycling, we can have more desalination, we can have all kinds of things if we have more clean energy. So anyway, I think that if you start arguing about energy use, then you have to look at if we have more clean energy, can we have other environmental benefits, which make it a win, to use some more of that energy to get environmental benefits out? And in this case, I think that we have quite a bit of you know more potential to produce clean energy. Then we have for say, instance habitable land. We can just produce loads more of habitable land that's it's very finite. So if we can help have enough food, while also saving half globe, and then do that by using more energy, I'm all for using more energy in a way that doesn't burn in the environment. So I would say that energy use is, of course, good. If you can reduce energy use, it's always good. We don't want to use energy needlessly. But if by increasing energy use, you get lots of benefits, then you shouldn't you shouldn't close your eyes for that, you should realize where you can find find the best, best environmental benefit for that. I will say he is worse than other part two question that I forgot.

Dr. Chris Keefer  40:42  

Oh, I always asked like five per questions that my guests have are keeping up with so you're not you're not alone in that. That's, that's my flaws and interviewer. But maybe kind of leading on from there. You know, the on the sort of, I guess, stages of agriculture? Sure. Yeah.

Iida Ruishalme  40:59  

One thing that is a complicated that's sort of a crisscross with organic thinking, and other other sustainable agriculture ideas, is that you? There's a lot of reaction against monocultures. So monoculture is a really confused term because monoculture is actually if you have a field, you have a monoculture, because that's one crop that dominates. Okay, a large area. So that's the very vague definition of monoculture. What you actually don't want to have is his home, area's always grown on the same crop. So that that means that you don't rotate your crops, you do mono cropping that you do the same crop year in year out same crop again, weet weet, weet, weet, weet weet is done a lot as a monocrop. But so this idea that we should look to nature, for a superb farmer introduced this idea that okay, we should never have only this one dominating crop. Instead, we should have polyculture. So polyculture is very close to your garden of Eden type of thing, that you have some fruit trees here, and maybe berry bushes here, and then some vegetables here and some potatoes there, and leave it a wheat over there. So you have this multitude of different things, it's a really beautiful image. And it can be very productive. Actually, when you look at people who don't subsistence agriculture, they can actually produce a lot from the land, by having these diff all these definitions filled in small plot of land. The interesting thing is that here we come to the fact that that doesn't really that's not possible to do with a lot of mechanization, you have to do that labor by hand. If you have, you can't drive through it with a big tractor and collect everything, obviously, because you have specialized tools for for harvesting different things, you have to have people actually going by hand by hand, and digging up the weeds and, and doing the the really backbreaking labor, outside. Usually this is done by the whole family, the children, the parents, the grandparents, so that you can get a lot of productivity out of the land, in a really beautiful lucky setting with lots of different crops in it. But then you really have to suffer the labor, the constant labor of getting your living off the land. But you don't have this the benefits of mechanization that makes your job more comfortable that you can actually do it quicker and get more food out of less work. So here we have a lot of organizations, environmental organizations, and even organizations like a UN and food agriculture organization that are very supportive of small scale agriculture and more organic like methods, even going as far as saying that we should, we should always try to minimize inputs. And that we should actually harness this fact that these small farmers with lots of different crops can produce so much food. But while I think that these small scale farmers should have lots of support all the support, they're the poorest farmers on the on the earth, basically. I think that there is a real danger in trying to support a permanence of their situation, that they should remain in this situation of really harsh labor. Because I think they should have a choice of saying, Do we like this hard work? And we want to keep it this or would we actually want to have some leisure time? Would we want to be sure that we can send our kids to school and not starve. There's a lot of societal problems with with this really labor intensive farming, which many see as the sort of optimal, optimal situation of farming.

Dr. Chris Keefer  45:13  

It's interesting because it's not not a mode of production that's conducive to things like feminism, for instance. You know, definitely not Fortunately, the the historical tendency is for, you know, this hard back breaking work to fall onto women and girls. The Productivity question that I think's interesting, because I remember looking at that report and critiques of it, you know, what you're describing this kind of garden of Eden polyculture thing, it seems like there's maybe examples on really rich land that's managed incredibly well, maybe Michael Pollan, or something like that, that is capable of being very, very productive. But I've heard one of the main criticisms of organic agriculture, from the perspective of biodiversity and environmental impact, like the worst thing we can do for the land is, you know, cut a forest down and turn it into farmland. And that, you know, organic agriculture, it seems like the consensus is that it's about 80% as productive as as conventional agriculture, which means you have to convert 20% More, more land to agriculture, and often bring in to production very marginal land that, you know, might be better off as a forest, then not producing very much. Yeah, what's your sense of it, for

Iida Ruishalme  46:19  

sure. I mean, when we're talking about organic agriculture, and comparing the yields, we're not talking about the poorest farmers on planet, we're talking about Western countries, or rich countries, who farm a lot organically and there, you don't have families who are ready to work on these fields to produce because you can't, you have to work so much there, that as your only income and your you have to eat that food, you don't, you don't necessarily get a situation where you have an easy time feeding so many more others, so they actually could make a commercial venture out. But you can turn a small plot of land into surprisingly much food for your family. What they see that is that if you go up from there, if you if, when the farm size grows, and and and you try to produce a lot of the same crop more and monoculture stuff, then you as if you don't get the modern methods of intensification, your productivity drops. So you have consistently lower productivity on organic fields. And it's anywhere between 20 and 50%, less than then conventional yields. So then if you want to actually produce producing our food, you would have to use one half times as much land as you can, as what the food that we can produce. Now, today, if you went over to organic production, then it would require a lot more land. And as I said, land is a finite resource. Right now we have about 10 billion hectares of habitable land. If you count out deserts and glaciers and barren land, and we're already using half 5 billion hectares of that to agriculture. So if we use one and a half times as much heat, you can see that that would be a huge change on the world scale. That would mean I'd no Bye bye most forests. So it's a serious problem, if we would scale it up. Right now, organic farming is is a really marginal way of growing food. So it's only a few percent in Europe, it's it's 8% now that they've increased it,

Dr. Chris Keefer  48:58  

you know, the byline of our program or the services that the title of our program is Decouple and we've applied that really to sort of evaluating technologies on their merits as D couplers. And looking at the politics that can enable that but it also feeds into decoupling from nature versus harmonizing with nature and this idea of, you know, maybe conventional agriculture, non organic agriculture is better at, you know, high yields on, you know, smaller areas of the most productive land. And again, sparing, sparing nature in order to improve biodiversity. So, really having two very separate worlds one that's, you know, ultra productive, you know, maybe rotating crops, but you know, in that that growing season, it's a single crop. And then the kind of organic garden of Eden image is like that there's biodiversity within the farm, you know, in terms of growing multiple crops symbiotically in a field, like the three sisters a corn beans, squash, that kind of thing, which is hard to do on a sort of mechanized or lower labor intensity type farm but Of course, corn, soybean and squash is not all that biodiverse compared to, you know, a standard Carolinian forest or something like that. Right. So am I understanding that argument, right? And that use of that other use of the word decoupling?

Iida Ruishalme  50:12  

Yeah, for sure. I mean, so So organic farming started from the idea that you want to have more natural methods. And you have to, you want to look at the farm in a more holistic somehow more, give it some more meaning in as a respected somehow as a natural environment. And then it turned out that if you didn't use efficient pesticides, like you do with conventional farming, and you have consistently a little bit less yields, but what you do get is that instead of having as much yield to your, your plant that you're you're growing, you don't have quite as many of those plants where they don't produce quite as large fruit or seed. Instead, you have some other plants in the mix, and some some pests that maybe get to eat a little bit more of your crop. So you have more biodiversity on your field. And instead of being this garden, Eden, it actually sometimes I mean, having a weed infestation means that the biodiversity of your field has gone up, right. If you have lots of weeds and pests on your field, that's a plus for biodiversity. If it's not that it's only one pest everywhere or wanting one weed every Earth, it's a very modest increase. But obviously, that's that's a problem as well. So not all viruses good. But we want to have very diverse microbial flora, we want to have non targets, pests, insects, feeling well as much as possible, and so on. So obviously, some of the biodiversity metrics are important to us. There may not be one to one, you know, only a good only bad in some situations, biodiversity can be very harmful pests that's eating your crop. And that means that all the resources that you poured into the field are going not to feed humans, but they're going to waste to nature. So because you have this this measurable difference that on farm biodiversity is higher in organic fields, a lot of for instance, European nature conservation goals or farming goals say that, Oh, we biodiversity is important. So we want to increase organic farming. But then you go and look at what our conservation biologist actually saying about biodiversity threats to biodiversity. And what are the key things to do to conserve biodiversity? Then you realize that you can't, you have to again, look at this more holistically. You can't just look on the farm by diversity, you have to actually look the biodiversity of the system. So say, What are you doing to the whole country when you're doing the whole continent. And here they say that the number one threat to biodiversity is agricultural expansion. Your your wild piece of wood will always be so much more biodiverse and have so much more vulnerable and threatened species, then a field that the tiny increase in a biodiverse field that produces slightly less food is in total, actually, you know, nature loses on it, because if you don't want to have our tighten our belts, we're saying that let's produce less food, then you're saying, Okay, we just need half half a field more now to produce the same amount of food in order to get this little in increase in biodiversity on our field. And obviously, that, that makes it harder to keep the forest growing, which has that huge biodiversity in it. Because what we don't think about we love this idea of having really verdant gardens and fields. But what we don't think about is that actually, these lovely garden like things where we like to walk are not the kind of environments where the most threatened species live, most threatened species are those that are specialized to their special environments. So you can just have slightly less of your crop and have them be right at home there. They may need wetlands or they may need old growth forests in order to be able to live at all. So instead, if you increase this organic field area, you have more of those generally species that have actually quite easy time adapting to almost any sort of surroundings. And they are like alright, alright, we can we can we can make it here too. So they can spread to even more areas. But they're not those species that are actually doing disappearing because their habitats are disappearing.

Dr. Chris Keefer  55:03  

That's, that's very interesting. Yeah, the generalists, the ones that can adapt, survive the the raccoons and the pigeons and the crows and things like that. Yeah. Because we're sort of getting towards our hour here, I wanted to close up a little bit thematically again, and maybe open a can of worms that will take a few minutes to finish. But what strikes me about organic agriculture is because it's so rigid in terms of the dogmas that have been set out is that it becomes kind of static, and I'm sure there's some micro innovations that occur here and there and some knowledge transfer from one area to another that can advance it to a degree. But it is very much frozen in time. And one of the things that it's kind of locked itself out from is genetic engineering. But also even, you know, we were talking about the earlier inputs in terms of pesticides that were maybe clumsy or highly toxic. And as we develop more and more expertise, you know, our synthetic pesticides become much more selective and and selectively toxic just for the target species and not for humans or other other elements of nature. So I wanted to maybe start with the chemical side of things, and draw some comparisons between sort of approved organic insecticides and pesticides, and how they compare to some more of the kind of modern herbicides and insecticides that we use in terms of toxicity.

Iida Ruishalme  56:21  

Well, I mean, both organic and conventional farming have used some, some pretty nasty stuff, especially in the past. And there's still some stuff in the US, especially on the conventional side, which I think is also it's very important that we actually regulate that stuff, because there are still some very potent chemicals left, that can actually serve a very vital function in certain situations. But bleach, we shouldn't, for instance, have them have lots of farmers who don't have any knowledge about how to use these substances using them, like we have in a lot of poorer parts of the world. That's actually where most of the problematic uses occur, because we have less knowledge and less regulation. But on on comparisons on on organic and conventional pesticides, there are some really sort of counter intuitive situations where, for instance, you're out on wine yards and sciences, you're allowed to use a copper sulfate because it's it's sort of an naturally occurring mineral, I suppose. It's a mineral. So it's not synthesized, newly lab or specifically developed. And,

Dr. Chris Keefer  57:42  

but it still needs to be mined and refined and you know, milled and yeah formulated in the lab, as you were

Iida Ruishalme  57:47  

saying, for some reason, it's still okay to use in organic winners. And copper actually builds up in the soil. And it can have some, some concerns some health concerns for the farmers. And there have been some farmers who have been moving away from organic for concern for the environment for the use of this, because they can't use the synthetic fungicides and other substances that don't accumulate and don't have that harm for the farmer. And then what I think is, is one of the most maligned and most frustrating case is, is the weed control part. Because organic farmers actually use quite a lot of fungicides and insecticides. They may not always be as effective and as targeted, but they use a lot of those they are all neem oil and, and Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis, soil bacteria. Ester extract, which is actually also a genetically modified plant. It's also that that substance is approved for use on organic farming, they can spray it on but they can't use the plant which produces that same substance because that plant has been developed with the wrong technology. But the substance being on the plant is fine. So that's a bit funny. But the weed control part is where organics farming has an issue. There's not very good methods of weed control. So when you said that organics doesn't askew mechanization, tilling is one of the main ways of weed control for organic farming. You have some other things like I said, you have some flame throwers, and you have the opportunity to grow, cover crops and different crops that sort of make it harder for weeds to establish. But still, you need to use a lot of tilling and that actually also uses fossil fuels. because it takes more tractor passes to do tilling and so on. And instead, you could be using one of the least harmful pesticides developed, because not herbicides also pesticides. Lots of people have this, have this want to point out to agronomist or whoever, that if they're talking about pesticides, they can be talking about a herbicide. No, that's not true. pesticide is the umbrella term. So one of the most one of the least harmful pesticides ever developed, is glyphosate. It's really, really slight in its toxicity. And here, you can actually omit the tilling step, because you can kill the weeds with glyphosate. And then use method of no till so you don't actually disturb the soil. Bed with all its microbial richness and wonderful networks of earthworms and everything that's ever all the goodness that you have in the soil. tilling is like this huge earthquake and tsunami all at once that disrupts the whole thing. It frees the soil for erosion forces, and so on and takes energy and time for the farmer to do. And you can omit this step. And you can do no till farming with help of a spray of glyphosate. And yeah, it's there's like, if you had a competition of watch the least harmful substance that we spray in our fields, I think that would be in the top. It is completely new. And developed in the lab, though, so people have gotten really scared of it, because there's been a lot of known campaigning against it. And Orgain organic, I think uses this fear as well. We don't use this stuff like loves it. And every time I grow an inward because I think that this is one of the one of the things that you have to worry least about. And think about all those earthworms that are saved. Think about all those tractor passes that you don't have to use think about the soil and gets to stay on there. So instead of your meeting this step of using this dangerous sounding chemical, and then you're at the same time you're turning your back to all these environmental benefits that he can offer.

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:02:27  

Yeah, no, that's extraordinary. And just your description of tilling. I mean it is it is quite violent. I actually had a small farm. When I finished my my fellowship training, I got a big loan and bought a small farm and we sort of tried to do a bit of a permaculture thing and I remember, you know, we had I think 30 acres and that all got plowed. And I remember just seeing the soil erosion and just you know, seeing this, the soil turned up when you think about all the microbial growth, the carbon fixation, the root systems and everything. It's it's pretty extraordinary how terrible tilling is and how, you know, we can avoid that.

Iida Ruishalme  1:03:02  

I've done some tailing off of the potato plot for my mum. And I felt really I mean, I couldn't sleep for weeks after because my back got so sore from that backbreaking labor, but then also it was this massacre of earthworms. She told us another one in pieces. It was horrible. Like yeah, killing them every step.

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:03:25  

If you if you were like a in the Jane School of Buddhism, tilling would be very hard for you to do I mean, they sweep the ground in front of them so they don't step on you.

Iida Ruishalme  1:03:33  

Yeah, no way. No tilling.

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:03:36  

Yeah, yeah, for sure. For sure. Yeah, I mean, I'm, I shouldn't say I'm a martial artist I used to I used to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And there's this interesting comparison between martial arts that are considered alive versus dead. And alive martial arts are ones in which there's still competition using kind of full physical force, so things like Boxing, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And what are considered the dead martial arts are ones where you've kind of lost that element or things become so codified that they become very static, right? And you end up sort of worshipping a guru and a master. And they taught you this way. So you're gonna always practice this way. And it's based on a lot of memorization and Kata and things like that. And I remember having experienced the two kinds of training how exciting the more dynamic alive martial arts were, and it's sort of, I mean, I wouldn't call this dead versus alive agriculture. Those are the wrong terminologies to use, but being stuck in a series of dogmas as technology continues to advance I think becomes more and more disadvantageous as we move into the future. And we become more elegant and I think you can think of no greater advancement than finding ways to you know, for for genetically engineered plants and bacteria to actually start fixing nitrogen and cut out the haber bosch process. That would be an absolutely incredible and I think we're starting to see some of that it's, it's, I think, controlled by 200 different genes. So it's, it's sort of the Manhattan Project of, of, you know, creating these carbon fixing plants, but I think I was reading about a an innovation recently and I'm always very hesitant because there's a lot of press releases and hyping in the press that you end up finding out is grossly exaggerated perhaps because the the founders are seeking to seed stories and you know, get a bunch of angel investors in their company. But in any case, I think there's been some advances recently not so much trying to edit the plants, but edit bacteria that maybe are more easily amenable to symbiosis with the plants. Yeah, for sure. I think that's, that's very exciting,

Iida Ruishalme  1:05:30  

hugely excited about, I mean, I know that so far, it's not revolutionary, it's still beginning, but having the kind of microbes that you can add to your soil that can increase natural nitrogen fixation, and so reduce the need of nitrogen application. Otherwise, that's, that's insanely encouraging. That's exactly what we want. And I recently listened to recently, at this EU panel, a young Italian farmer, lady, I forgotten her name. But anyway, she she was saying that, you know, I, I farm organically, and really pleased, I want to be able to have when there's new gene edited plant, that makes it possible for me to forego either fertilizers or pest control, because they are better tolerant to pests, I want to be able to use it. And this, I think, for me, was a heartbreaking thing. So to see. I mean, I wouldn't say that organic is a dead field, I would say that there's a lot of things happening there too. And there's a lot of things happening in, in our culture. And I would say that organic has even helped spark innovation, into looking into alternative ways of doing things. But it still remains a very limiting reality, when you have already decided that none of these technologies can be able to contribute now or in the future, that you already ruled them out, no matter how many environmental benefits they could have. So this is the big this is like where it hurts, do think that how can you keep doing this, you have to let us use all the things that can that can help nature, this has to be the ultimate goal. Please let us listen to these young farmer, please let her use these methods.

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:07:25  

Mm, no. And so many things, I think what's what's needed is a, you know, to be goal oriented to set out what what are the goals? What are we hoping to achieve, whether it's in an energy or agriculture, and be much less limited by dogmas and ideologies, and do a sort of dispassionate assessment of the available technologies, and pursue the ones that are going to achieve those goals? Not Yeah, exactly, you know, achieve a romance or romantic objective that you know, their mind to turn into the garden

Iida Ruishalme  1:07:52  

of the farm being as close to nature as possible. I think you have to take a step back and think is this really the ultimate goal? Or is the ultimate goal to have as much reach thriving natural wilderness as possible, while producing lots of nutritious food from healthy, sustainable farmland that can continue for generations to come? And you have to take a step back and think that Okay, so maybe my farm can't be just like the forest or can't be a natural, completely nature mimicking environment, perhaps it has to be a specialized environment, so that we can have as much of that true wilderness left as possible. So I think it's in a way you can say that it's a goal oriented goal oriented. Practice, depending on how you define your goals. But I think what we should ask for all this movement, is that be really transparent in what is your end goal? And what are the intermediate goals that take you there? Because he often I feel that like with renewables, an intermediary goal takes the place of the ultimate goal, that instead of doing Decarbonization, low carbon energy, we start thinking that we actually just trying to do renewable energy. And then we lose sight of how we could have done Decarbonization more efficiently. So here again, how do we serve nature best? How do we serve our reverence of nature in a way that actually gets us closest to it in a way that doesn't overlook something that could have helped it?

Dr. Chris Keefer  1:09:35  

Okay, well, on that note, thank you so much for joining us. I did just want to do some house housekeeping. Is that what you'd say at the end of the podcast? Just encourage folks to continue to leave reviews, wherever you download your podcast that certainly helps. We had a great four day retreat with the with the Decouple media team, Jesse Dillon and myself are working on a lot of rebranding and and distribution, we're certainly wanting to get the podcast out. We're really encourage you to sign up and subscribe to our YouTube channel. While you're where you'll see. Decouple studios, Jessie's flagship material really well produced beautiful stuff there. You can also catch interviews and highlights from the interviews there. And I just realized that been really looking for a social media platform where people can discuss the episodes and engage in a bit of a discourse and kind of process them and have little micro debates. And Twitter really has not been that place. And in general, I'm just trying to extract myself from Twitter because it just can get so ugly and polarizing. But the YouTube comment section has been really wonderful to become aware of. So I'd encourage folks that are on YouTube or YouTube curious to get on there, subscribe to the channel, and participate in that comment section because we're having lots of great conversations there. So Iida thank you again for making the time it's a pleasure as I was getting a chance to chat with you. Certainly a topic we're going to be deep diving a lot more there's there's a lot here to play with. But this was a really fun follow up particularly on our romanticism episode. So once again, thank you.

Iida Ruishalme  1:11:08  

Thanks again, Chris, it was a joy talking to you.

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