Ron: This article and the reference articles embedded in it provides an excellent overview of what is required for sustainable food and energy production by small scale self sufficient sustainable farming communities. An invaluable resource for rural living.
(ISIS Press Release 02/03/09)
Science of the Organism & Sustainable Systems
Implications for Agricultural Policies
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
calls for a shift away from the obsolete mechanistic science that has
helped create the current food, fuel, and financial crisis in the midst
of climate change. The new science of the organism re-establishes our
connection with nature and with indigenous knowledge systems worldwide.
Europe's agricultural policies must rise to the challenge, to support
and promote organic, localised agriculture and food and energy systems
that offers the most effective way out of the current crisis, to
deliver health, wealth and happiness to the world's nations.
Briefing for “The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, An Innovative
Paradigm” European Agricultural Policy Conference, 3 March 2009,
European Parliament, Brussels
A fully referenced and illustrated version of this article is posted on ISIS
members’ website. Details here
An electronic version of the full report can be downloaded from the ISIS online
store. Download Now
From mechanism to organism
The European Enlightenment
was responsible for many good things. It was the age of reason over
received wisdom . It transferred the power of creation from God to
nature, which we can understand by scientific enquiry. It also gave us
a powerful view of the world as machine  that brought about the
industrial revolution; and with it, the enclosure of the commons,
capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, world wars, and an industrial,
mechanised, chemical Agriculture without Farmers ( SiS 27) . Graham Harvey's excellent book  will tell you how it happened, and more importantly, how it could be reversed.
This year is the 200 th anniversary of Darwin 's birth, and the 150 th anniversary of the Origin of Species .
Darwin and Victorian England gave us the idea that competition of one
against all, and all against nature is the way to progress. Add
Darwinism to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776), and we get the free market neo-liberal economics that has dominated the world for 150 years  (see Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? ).
essentially how the world has been brought to its knees. We have a
food, fuel, and financial crisis in the midst of climate change, from
decades of ruthless over-exploitation of planet and people.
mechanistic model has had its day. In science, it was becoming obsolete
soon after the turn of the past century with the emergence of the
science of the organism. I pick out three books that have influenced me
the most. The authors were all inspired by the new physics of
relativity, and especially quantum theory. Alfred North Whitehead's
eloquent critique of the static, flat, and colourless Newtonian
Universe in Science and the Modern World  is all of a piece with Henri Bergson's insistence, in Time and Freewill ,
that time is multidimensional and heterogeneous, giving unique
qualities to our innermost experiences. Whitehead argued that we can
never really understand nature except as an organism embedded within the
superorganism of nature herself. Erwin Schrödinger struggled against
the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which insists that
nothing can be said about the world in which we live  (see Life & the Universe After the Copenhagen Interpretation , SiS 34). His book, What is Life?
, is well known for having predicted the genetic material DNA. But
that's only the half of it. The other half predicted the molecular
coherence of organisms; which we discovered in my laboratory in 1992.
organisms have such a high degree of molecular coherence that they
appear as dynamic liquid crystal displays under the polarising
microscope geologist use for identifying crystals, as you can see in
the pictures on the cover of my book The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms  first published in 1993; now in its 3rd much enlarged edition.
Sustainable circular economy of the organism
main reason organisms are so coherent is because they use energy and
resources in a circular way. They run on a circular economy that
minimises waste. In the ideal, an organism accumulates no net entropy
(representing waste energy and disorganisation), and even the waste
exported is minimum. Think of the circle as the organism. A cycle is
perpetual return, it sustains itself. Or think of it as the life-cycle,
it regenerates itself.
The key to the sustainable circular
economy is that it maximises cooperation and reciprocity. The organism
has structured activities spanning all space-time scales, those
yielding energy are directly coupled to those requiring it, and the
giving and taking can be reversed.
In contrast, the dominant
economic model of infinite unsustainable growth that depends on
competition has no closed cycle and hence no structures within; it
generates a lot of wastes and tends to spiral out of control. Boom and
bust are inherent to the model.
Sustainable systems as organisms
soon occurred to me that all sustainable systems are like organisms
, an idea developed further with theoretical ecologist Robert
Ulanowicz at the University of Maryland . And needless to say, this
applies all the more so to sustainable agricultural systems as
documented in our definitive report  Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS publication).
Organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems can
potentially compensate for all greenhouse emissions due to human
activities and free us from fossil fuels. This conclusion is based on
evidence from scientific analyses, case studies in farmer-led research,
and especially farmers' own experiences and innovations that often
confound academic scientists wedded to outmoded and obsolete
There are numerous highlights in this
180 report. But I shall point to a couple of systems that best
demonstrate how farmers work with the circular economy of nature to
maximise productivity with the minimum work.
Takeo Furano is
one of the first organic farmers I visited. He runs a happy circular
economy of ducklings in the rice paddies. As you can see in the diagram
he drew, weeds and pests become food for the ducklings (saving hours of
weeding), and wastes become nutrients for rice plants, plankton, and
fish, while the movement of the ducklings provide mechanical
stimulation and aeration for the rice plants to grow big and strong.
Every year, Furano gets 7 tonnes of rice, 300 ducks, 4 000 ducklings,
countless fish, and enough vegetables for 100 people from his 2 ha
Another example of the circular economy is the
dyke-pond system perfected by the peasant farmers of the Pearl River
Delta, a system so productive that it supported on average 17 people
per ha in its heyday. There are many different dyke-pond systems; the
one shown here involves growing mulberry, elephant grass and vegetables
and raising pigs and silkworms on the dykes. Mulberry feeds silkworms,
and after the cocoons are harvested, the faeces of the silkworms are
dumped into the ponds to feed the plankton that feed the fish and water
plants, which go to feed the pigs. The pig manure also fertilizes the
pond. Typically 5 different species of carp are kept in the ponds to
fill the different depths and ecological niche. Elephant grass feeds
the grass carp.
Professor George Chan was trained as an
environment engineer at Imperial College, London, and had many
government posts in the US and Mauritius before he was about to retire
and spent 5 years with the Chinese peasants of the Pearl River Delta.
He said he learnt as much from them as in Imperial College . From his
experience in China , he perfected what he called an Integrated Food
and Waste Management System, which I call Dream Farm, or Dream Farm 1,
and schematised in a diagram based on his description of it.
biogas digester for anaerobic digestion is the heart of the system; it
reinforces the circular economy and makes it run more efficiently.
Livestock manure and waste water, instead of being dumped directly into
the fishpond, go into the biogas digester where it is sterilised and
converted into biogas - 60 percent or more of methane – that can
provide all energy needs for cooking, heating, electricity and
processing. The residue is a rich fertilizer for crops or for growing
mushrooms. The waste water is still not passed directly into the fish
pond, but goes through oxidative cleansing in shallow basins with algae
which produces oxygen through photosynthesis to oxidize the remaining
chemical and biological pollutants. Only then is the water allowed to
go into the fishponds. Water from the fish ponds can be used to
‘fertigate' crops. Algae can be harvested to feed chicken, ducks and
geese. Crops wastes go to raise earthworms or compost, or they could be
fed into the biogas digester as well. What remains after the mushroom
harvest can be fed to livestock, along with crops, and the livestock
manure goes back into the biogas digester to complete the grand cycle.
And as you can see this farm is incredibly productive because it relies
entirely on internal input, recycling all the wastes and turning wastes
into food and energy resources.
You can have floating garden, rice crops on the ponds as well as crops on the dykes, and clean, very happy pigs.
Dream Farm 2 to feed and fuel the world, and mitigate climate change
we put everything together in an integrated food and energy Dream Farm
2 operating on the same organic circular economy. It differs from Dream
Farm 1 only in the explicit incorporation of renewable energies at
small to micro-scale: wind, solar and hydroelectric (where
appropriate). This is the ideal Dream Farm 2 for
demonstration/education and research purposes, an incubator and
showcase for new technologies, information exchange and resource centre
for Dream Farms around the world, all using local resources and biodiversity as much as possible .
The diagram is colour-coded. Pink is for energy, green for agricultural
produce, blue is for water conservation and flood control, black is
waste in the ordinary sense of the word, which soon gets converted into
food and energy resources.
Anaerobic digestion is the core
waste-treatment and energy technology in Dream Farm 2 as in Dream Farm
1. With anaerobic digestion of organic wastes, we do not need any
bioenergy crops that compromise food security.
digestion is a boon for Third World countries, as it provides a
labour-saving smokeless fuel for cooking (much healthier for women and
children), a means of generating electricity for lighting that extends
social and working hours, and improved sanitation Biogas Bonanza for Third World Development , SiS
27). Th e Chinese government has been promoting the widespread use of
biogas digesters for years to support a burgeoning eco-economy; they
provide some of the necessary energy while preventing more than 90
percent of the environmental pollution  ( Biogas China , SiS 32).
n addition to combined heat and power generation that improves the
efficiency of energy use by at least 50 percent, biogas methane is by
far the cleanest fuel for mobile use  ( Organic Waste-Powered Cars , SiS 30).
Biogas methane-powered cars were voted environmental cars of the year
in 2005. Existing cars that run on natural gas will run on biogas
methane, appropriately cleaned and upgraded. Italy has filling stations
for natural gas every 25 km  ( The Biogas Economy Arrives , SiS
40), but it doesn't have biogas methane yet. Sweden has taken to
anaerobic digestion for producing energy on a large scale, with small
local farmscale digesters comprising 10 percent. It is on course to
generate 10 000 GWh/year by 2050. Biogas is most su itable for
transport within city areas, and local fleets are already operating in
Gothenburg, Linköping, and Stockholm .
Since the Food Futures Report was published, I have refined the calculations  Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change ( SiS 40),
with pretty much the same results. I f Dream Farm 2 were universally
adopted over the world, it would have the potential to mitigate 56.6
percent of greenhouse emissions and 50.5 percent of energy use.
Consuming energy locally at or near the point of production increases
energy use efficiency by 60-70 percent, because any ‘waste' heat
generated (typically about 60 percent of the energy) could be used, and
losses due to long distance transfer are minimised. So if we take a
modest increase in efficiency half of what is theoretically possible,
we reduce fossil energy use by another 30 percent, and hence save a
further17 percent of ghg emissions.
Thus, it would not be surprising if fossil energies could be eliminated altogether .
combination of solar, wind and micro-hydroelectric with biogas would
provide well above the energy needs on the farm, and the excess energy
could be fed into the grid system supplying local homes and businesses.
We are helping to set up Dream Farm 2s around the world, and
there has been a tremendous amount of interest. Closest to home is an
Urban Dream Farm 2 proposed by Alex Smith, who owns an organic food
factory next to the new Eurostar terminal in London . Alex has been
elected a London Leader for 2009, and wants to make his mark by
establishing an Urban Dream Farm 2. Food wastes will be treated by
anaerobic digestion to generate energy, and the residue used to
fertilize the organic gardens and plots around the area.
Some key lessons of circular economy
Some key lessons of circular economy are elaborated in the final chapter of our Food Futures Report .
- Sustainable development is possible, and not a
contradiction in terms, as some critics of the dominant model claim. By
incorporating more and more cooperating life cycles, more biomass is
produced to support more life, more business; more people.
symbiotic relationships are the key to the circular economy, and that
is dependent on biodiversity, the more diverse the more productive,
exploding the myth that there is a constant carrying capacity to a
piece of land
- It makes explicit why an unregulated financial market is toxic to the real economy.
economic system is embedded in and dependent on the ecosystem. If you
have a financial market that creates paper money out of nothing several
times over, this will go to fuel conspicuous consumption and
exploitation of the earth's resources, well beyond what it can sustain.
Money in an economic system is often compared to energy in the living
system. When money ceases to flow, the economic system collapses, just
as the living system cannot function without energy flow. This analogy
holds so long as the financial market is accountable to the real
economy that trades in goods and services, but breaks down completely
with the proliferations of the unregulated financial sector  ( Financing Poverty , SiS 40).
All money is not equal, that created in the unregulated financial
sector is not energy as much as pure entropy, the toxic dissipation
that ultimately kills the system. In healthy systems, money, like
energy, flows symmetrically in fair exchange based on real values of
goods and services, so little entropy or waste is generated.
Contemporary Western science is shifting
away from mechanical reductionism towards an organic, holistic
perspective that has deep affinities with indigenous knowledge systems
across the world , as so clearly seen in agriculture.
agricultural policies should be promoting organic, localised food and
agricultural systems, and supporting appropriate research that combines
the best of organic science and indigenous local knowledge, making sure
that scientists and farmers work in equal partnership (more details in
 Towards a Convention on Knowledge , ISIS publication).
And most important of all, Europe should firmly reject genetically modified crops, and we already presented fully The Case for A GM - Free Sustainable World in 2003 (
ISIS publication). Now six years later, the evidence is even more
compelling. We should ban environmental releases of GMOs decisively
now. Genetic modification was inspired by the old genetic determinist
paradigm, already superseded by t he new genetics of the fluid genome
 ( Living with the Fluid Genome ,
ISIS publication) almost as soon as it began in the late 1970s. The
fluid genome makes genetic modification dangerous and definitely not
the way to sustainability [25, 26] ( GM is Dangerous and Futile , GM is Not the Way to Sustainability , SiS 40).
We cannot trust the regulators to protect us, as they are doing their
best to ignore the damning evidence on safety, corrupting science, and
even helping to promote GMOs  ( GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham , ISIS scientific publication).
Whenever truly independent scientists carry out feeding trials with
GMOs, they find sick or dead animals. The latest, a study commissioned
by the Austrian government, shows that  GM Maize Reduces Fertility & Deregulates Genes in Mice ( SiS
41). At the same time, geneticists are documenting how toxic substances
affect not just the individuals exposed, but also their children and
children's children  ( Epigenetic Inheritance - What Genes Remember , SiS
41), basically because the substances determine how certain genes are
expressed, and the environmental effects become inherited  ( Epigenetic Toxicology , SiS
41). That's why risk assessment of GMOs and other xenobiotics have to
be carried out over three or four generations. Decades of sequencing
and dissecting the human genome have confirmed that the real causes of
ill health are environmental and social  ( From Genomics to Epigenomics , SiS 41).
It is not the genetic messages encoded in genomic DNA, but
environmentally induced epigenetic modifications that overwhelmingly
determine people's health and wellbeing. Early nutrition and parental
care play a large role  ( Caring Mothers Strike Fatal Blow against Genetic Determinism , SiS 41) in an individual's physical and mental health.
's agricultural policies must rise to the challenge, to support and
promote organic, localised and biodiverse agriculture that is the most
effective way to deliver health, wealth, and happiness to the world's