Cattle and Kelp: Agriculture in a New Economy

By the Schumacher Center for a New Economics

When, in his 1981 E. F. Schumacher Lecture, Wes Jackson gave a “Call for a Revolution in Agriculture” he was not simply talking about changing tools and techniques, he was talking about a shift in thinking, a shift of culture.

The dominant agriculture then, as now, depended on the monoculture of annual crops tilled by fossil-fueled machines and treated by petroleum-based chemicals. In this system, agricultural decisions are driven by economic considerations, human-cultural information dominates natural information. Even many of the “most ecologically correct stewards” are losing the battle against the plagues of soil erosion, declining soil fertility, super pests, and drought.

In their work to develop perennial grain crops that simulate natural prairies, Jackson and the team at The Land Institute have been following a different path, one that studies the way that “nature’s economy functions” and starts to “utilize the natural integrities of nature.”

The culture shift that will be necessary to create this new ecology is no easy matter. When asked where we should begin, Jackson suggested two themes that come from nature but also have a strong hold in our culture: redemption and transcendence.

These themes ran strong in the 35th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, entitled Cattle & Kelp: Agriculture in a New Economy. The lectures were delivered by Allan Savory and Bren Smith, and are avialable to view on YouTube. Check out the highlight videos embedded below.

Both Savory and Smith tell stories of ecological redemption through a new approach to agriculture. Both have developed agricultural models based on natural systems. And both offer methods for farming that can fix carbon, clean our waters, and produce food more abundantly. Savory has developed a “holistic management” model to reverse desertification throughout the world’s vital grasslands, while Bren Smith cultivates kelp and shellfish using a model that he has dubbed “3-D ocean farming.”

Excerpts from Bren Smith's Lecture at the 35th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures

Bren Smith, Executive Director of GreenWave and owner of Thimble Island Oyster Co, has pioneered the development of restorative 3D ocean farming. Bren’s farming model is designed to restore ocean ecosystems, mitigate climate change, and create blue-green jobs for fishermen while ensuring healthy, local food for communities.

After dropping out of school at the age of 14, Smith worked a wide array of jobs in the commercial fisheries, ranging from longlining for McDonald’s on the Bering Sea and “sliming” in the canneries of Bristol Bay, Alaska, to lobstering in Lynn, Massachusetts and aquaculture farming in Newfoundland, Canada. These experiences, combined with years of exploration and experimentation with restorative forms, led Smith to develop the model for 3D ocean farming that has brought him to national and international attention.

Smith’s work has been profiled by CNN, The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, National Geographic Television’s Future of Food series, and the Wall Street Journal. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic and The Atlantic. Most recently, he was announced as one of the four newest Fellows at Ashoka US, joining a network of over 3,000 of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

Excerpts from Allan Savory's Lecture at the 35th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures

Allan Savory was born in Rhodesia, southern Africa. He pursued an early career as a research biologist and Game Ranger in the British Colonial Service of what was then Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia), and later as a farmer, game rancher, politician and international consultant, based in Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe).

In the 1960s, while working on the interrelated problems of increasing poverty and disappearing wildlife, Savory made a significant breakthrough in understanding what was causing the degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems. He went on to develop the resource management methodology he named “holistic management.” Since then thousands of land, livestock and wildlife managers have been able to reverse land degradation in a manner that makes, rather than costs, money.

In 2009, Savory formed the Savory Institute, which focuses on restoring the world's grasslands and facilitating the realization of enduring returns for the land and all who depend on it. His work has been recognized by the Banksia Foundation and the Buckminster Fuller Institute for its innovation in the face of the world’s most pressing problems. When not travelling the world spreading his message, Savory and his wife split their time between their house in Albuquerque and a thatched-roof mud hut in the African bush.

The Schumacher Center for a New Economics (SCNE) is based in Great Barrington, MA. It's mission is to educate the public about an economics that supports both people and the planet. SCNE combines theoretical research on economics with practical application, deliberately focusing on transformative systems and the principles that guide them.  Since 1981, SCNE has hosted the E. F. Schumacher Annual Lectures to capture some of the most visionary voices that speak to the urgent need to transform our economic, social, and cultural systems in ways that support both the planet and its citizens.