Seeing the World System of Weeds – Or – Do Androids dream of Intelligent Sheep? A Compleat Ramble

An anecdote about our research focus on ‘weeds’.  I was a little mischievously provocative about our ‘weed’ research at Otago University.  I remembered an Aldo Leopold article in one of my books of his essays (no, I can’t be bothered going and finding it – I think I lent it to someone anyway, so please give it back whoever you are) which was politely scathing of the agriculture professors of the 30s or 40s calling chicory and plantain ‘weeds’ when they had such great qualities for the wider system.  This is ramble about needing to think in that wider system view ….. or else.

Robot sheep

17 May 2006

Relating to the topic on ‘why biodiversity for farmers?’ I was listening to the National Radio farm news programme. CSIRO in West Aussie are doing some work with sheep grazing. Sheep are apparently intelligent enough to selectively graze particular pasture species for medicinal requirements. They mentioned the implications for reduction in artificial medicines and sustainable agriculture. Right up Marion’s agro-ecological alley.

They mentioned that work in the past had apparently shown that sheep will selectively graze for nutritional requirements. It is well known that certain plants (otherwise known as “weeds” – sorry, couldn’t resist) have different nutritional properties. “Remember to eat your spinach,” etc. Same goes for medicinal properties – plants are still v. important sources of drugs. Not rocket science, but odd that we don’t encourage the floristic diversity of pastures because of our – I think – dumb focus on limited variables (production, metabolisable energy, and utilisation)

Cattle are very selective grazers, as are horses and goats, but also not-so-dumb sheep apparently.

The story highlights two alternative approaches:

  1. Mechanistic focus on pasture ‘production’ as Kg dry matter (DM/ha/annum), pasture ‘quality’ as measured (quantitatively!!!) by metabolisable energy (ME)/kg, and pasture utilisation (so you graze low to ensure lots of high ME leaf and less dead grass & stalk (& never mind that lower utilisation is linked to organic matter build up through root extension/death/decay and surface litter build-up). Problems of nutrition and health are dealt with by adding supplements – fertiliser, nutritional supplements such as licks, & oral/external/intravenous medicine. System effects on soil, stream, biodiversity are not considered. Or if your increased compaction and reduced OM leads to more ‘problems’, you treat the symptom by some added input of energy (more fert, mechanical/aeration processes, etc.). A factory approach. “Scientific management,” a la Frederick Taylor on steroids.
  1. Systems focus on designing a self-organised ‘system’ to provide multiple benefits, reduce costs, risks, improve performance, etc. which ticks over by and of itself without the need for more, and more, ….. and more, ………… and even MORE energy and ‘techno-fix inputs to keep the dam thing viable (see Mechanical focus above) – with the additional recognition that it is not a closed system like a machine, so appreciate that wider system effects come in from outside to ‘shock’ the system – disease, climatic events, market shocks, etc. – (so build in robustness/resilience/adaptability through farm structure/within-patch composition/between-patch landscape pattern/management processes, etc.), as well as implications for system effects sourced from inside on soils, streams, biodiversity etc, which in the long term can come back to bite.

Think Vandana Shiva’s brilliant dichotomy of a paddy system in Monocultures of the Mind – so we start with a self organised system of diverse species (to cope with the variability of monsoon patterns), ducks and koi for grubs, protein (& mosquitos = malaria, dengue fever etc. – see – ‘system effects’), wild food, both protein & vegetable, resilience, non-reliance on cash.  And then a ‘wise’ (humph) technocrat comes along and promises to quadruple grain production with their diploid rice, which has to be purchased, whose seeds are mules, which needs more fertiliser inputs, and some sprays for this, and … whoops, the koi have died, and the ducks are sickly … so we need to deal with the grubs they were eating with more pesticides … and then there’s the dengue fever (where did that come from?), and now I’m in debt to the big farmer down the road, who wants my farm as collateral, and two years later he owns it and I commit suicide.

The self organised, low input resilient system is destroyed by monocultural thinking, but never despair, because we don’t measure any of that other stuff because we are agronomic researchers (piffle to your ducks, dengue fever and suicides) and we increased grain production, so there.  A feel a scientific, objective, completely value-free journal article coming on, with numbers of course.  Then everybody in the Ministry will read it, and look bewildered if you so much as whisper ‘complex adaptive system’.
I think it would be a simply marvellous idea to run our whole world this way, don’t you?

That about explains where the hell western land use systems – well ‘socio-ecological systems’ really – are ‘seen’ by the technocrats.

Anecdote aside. So here’s another one (yes, and I know because I have been told this since a freshman that stories are SOooo much poorer than numbers, so forgive me, please).  When a student at Lincoln (God, that was horrible; I felt I was having a frontal lobotomy performed daily) – one or two years ago (hmmm) – we went and saw a very interesting dairy farm near Ashburton. Had border dyke irrigation, and crappy Lismore stony silt loam soils (“crappy” is, of course, a technical term). The farmer had no dogs, incidentally, which resulted in wonderfully calm friendly cows that came up and nuzzled we students. He maintained he got better performance through the lack of stress, but he didn’t show us the numbers.  Sigh, when will these people learn that numbers are everything.  Where would love be without numbers?

I do remember his interest in ‘weeds’. Then he first arrived on the property, he noticed that the cows were selecting grazing some of the ‘weeds’ that has established on the drier ridges of the border dykes (little ridge lines a little less that a foot high and 18 inches wide (that contain the flood water down a channel in the paddock). Stocksbill, yarrow, plantain, etc. Can’t remember the particular species, but specifically interested in the broadleaves (as opposed to gramineae). Broadleaves (except clover, and even they are under fire) ought, of course, to be sprayed with MCPA & MCPB to ensure a ‘pure’, ‘high quality’, ‘high production’ sward (more on these definitions inon).

He asked a professor friend about the attributes of the broadleaves selected and was told they were high in some trace elements (iron as I recall).

Now it gets interesting. What would our normal response be to this news? Naturally, you go for option 1 above. That’s how everyone is taught. You do a soil test for micronutrients and do a dressing of all the low ones, ….. right? I mean, if yarrow will take it up, then just nuke the broadleaves, plant more ryegrass & clover (higher ‘production’ and ‘quality’ see), and Bob’s your uncle; solved. And no ‘weeds’.  Except certain plants selectively take up different micros, but hey, who’s counting that when there’s all this sexy kg/dm yield and ‘quality’ (measured quantitatively of course) to research.

Which brings us to definitions of ‘quality’. NZ agricultural focuses on one property of pasture – metabolisable energy. Well, OK, palatability as well, but less so – and, before the Motonui urea plant – ability to fix N. What about the other ‘qualities’ represented by a greater micro-pattern diversity within farm ‘patches’ that are – in effect – free lunches (like photosynthesis) whose loss requires some artificial input – usually involving more energy, so more cost & less resilience in the event of a shock like running out of oil?  Viz:

  • Ability to select for certain micronutrients
  • Ability to provide medicinal properties
  • Ability to feed at different levels in the soil profile (deep rooters – mainly broadleaves – also important for soil structure & water infiltration/percolation – through OM buildup à improved structure, as well as creating macropores)
  • Robustness/responsiveness under certain conditions – drought, flood?, temperature extremes, etc. (So pleased that it is still so easy to just put that pesky climate change completely OUT of our minds …
  • Links to soil micro-organisms – key fungi, decomposition/detoxification guilds
  • Links to macro-invertebrates – ensuring wide season of feed availability to beneficial insects – pollinators, lacewings, hoverflies, labybirds, lovely butterflies – and – I suppose – ‘rats with wings’ that feed on them.

Not to mention the effect of industrial agriculture driving diversity (and options) out of the wider land use system. And – speculation – a tendency to emphasising finance (a more cash-dependent economy) that drives people down a financial efficiency path, so scale wins, which means homogenous pattern wins, so farm macro-pattern diversity declines (the woody elements, wetlands, water bodies, rank field margins, etc.), with still more declines in beneficial biodiversity that – if present – would represent – directly or indirectly – a net value gain to the farmer.  So the farmer loses, but the technocrats must be right, because they have white coats and went to Lincoln.  But people are not trained to see that value. The paradigm doesn’t allow it – universities, agricultural research institutes, government policy, industrial product suppliers through their advertisements, the agricultural media, the young farmers clubs and farmers union (Feds) – are all dominated by the mechanistic, scientific management approach to farming. Cut things into silos, isolate, simplify, homogenise, focus on the material rather than the sociological/psychological, the fixed & measurable rather than the contingent & qualitative, analyse but don’t synthesis, presume closed-system entities are autonomous and whose measurements (however temporary or contingent on non-linearity and weird shifts in relationships) are all part of our noble pursuit of universal Newtonian social and natural laws are the path to enlightenment, rather than understanding the deeply contextual connections, which are not readily ‘knowable’ over space and time if you aren’t located within the system yourself.

Queue another anecdote by way of an example of ‘knowing’ a complex adaptive system.  Place a ball on a tee.  Set robot up with all the Newtonian formulae; include air pressure, distance and direction to goal posts, windage, height of goal.  puch button so robot kisks ball.  Record it sailing over the bar, Allan Hewson-like (I just say that to stir up the South Islanders).  Put ball back on tee.  Repeat.  Now we – the technocrats can claim we ‘know’.  We can predict the next kick, the next path, the next result.

But then …. let’s replace the ball with a small dog.  A chihuahua perhaps (I have nothing against these fine animals.  Paris Hilton cannot always be wrong.  And besides it’s a thought experiment and no animals were actually harmed in the writing of this anecdote).  Right, so we set the fine animal on the tee, position the robot, and push the button.  The fine animal sails over the bar.  We smile.  Then, because replication is, like, GOD, we repeat the process.  The fine animal is placed on the tee, but …. something is wrong …. it … has changed …. it is not being as cooperative as the ball.

So they replace the dog with a ball in their models and write another paper in a peer-reviewed high impact factor journal, and remember that saying about not acting with Dogs or children.

Which brings us back to children.  It terms of who ‘knows’ or can predict fairly readily what the hell the chihuahua will do the second time, will not be the outside technocrat.  It will be the small child who has know Miffy the chihuahua since it was a small rat-like puppy.  You have to be within the complex adaptive system to ‘know’ the system.  Parents know their children.  Think of that movie The Anthropologist from Mars with the voiceover explaining the significance of the wife passing the peas to her mate – it is obviously about fertility.

Anyway, it demonstrates – I hope – how absolutely critical is getting the philosophy right – or t least close – when to comes to determining policy and strategy.  Which is why we employ so many poorly-read economists to provide us with the font of policy of course.

Back to farm diversity ……. slightly more boring, also more immediate.   The implications of within-patch diversity decline is hitting Europe – most visibly in bird & butterfly losses (the charismatic fauna). But what else is happening to their system?

“Between 1947 & 1980, Britain had lost 95% of its lowland herb-rich grasslands, 80% of chalk & limestone grasslands, 60% of lowland heaths, 45 % of limestone pavements, 50 % of natural woodlands, 50 % of lowland marshes and fens, >60% of lowland raised bogs, and 1/3rd of all upland grasslands, heaths & mires. A large proportion of what remained has been severely damaged by the abandonment of traditional management practices such as extensive grazing and hay mowing. One third of all lowland rivers had been altered by drainage schemes and ‘improvement’.”

Martin, J. 2000. The development of modern agriculture: British farming since 1931. p 173

Note ‘herb-rich’ means ‘weed-rich’.

What the hell are we doing not shifting to a systemic view of land and community?  When will the scourge of mechanical thinking stop – when it tips us completely over?  If you want a root cause to focus on, focus on that.  Kill so-called ‘modernity’, then neo-liberalism will die with it.  And so will symptom-focused, new-problem-making techno-fixes.  And scientific industrial management which views everything as a reducible ‘resource’ through their monocultural lens.

Sheep are, indeed, very intelligent.   They get that you cannot classify perfectly functional elements of the system as ‘weeds’.

Btw, a ‘systems focus’ doesn’t mean organics. Industrial organics is rife, whereas there are plenty of ‘conventional’ (i.e. non-organic-labelled) farmers tend to that systems end of the spectrum. But who’s on the trending path – the mechanics or the systems thinkers?   And why?

Chris Perley

This entry was posted in Land Use, Resilience Thinking, Socio-ecological Systems, Thought Pieces, Wicked Problems and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Seeing the World System of Weeds – Or – Do Androids dream of Intelligent Sheep? A Compleat Ramble

  1. just Doi says:

    Nice one mate.
    My hens have a living area which includes wormwood, willows, mellow, nettles, dock, potato, tree lucerne, kale, fennel and others, all of which they feed on when they feel the need. One year a ten yr old chook who had a particularly thorough moulting spent two months with her head in the worm wood hedge (Artemisia absinthium) every day.YMMV

    • cjkperley says:

      I think you should measure the dry matter per hectare yield and the KJ/KG metabolisable energy of that wormwood before you take this heresy any further.

    • cjkperley says:

      I think you should measure the yield in dry matter and the quality in KJ before you comment any further on these heretical thoughts.

  2. Garth Cumberland says:

    Hello Chris..

    I haven’t thanked you lately for sending your ‘occasional’ blogs this way.. They’re appreciated; at least the ones I can understand..

    I was dismayed (to say the least) when Jeanette Fitzsimmons told me that you had not been heard of the Forest Policy Project (FPP) which has been quietly ticking over around ‘the traps’.. Sorry for that serious oversight..

    I will attach to this email the latest (and sorry, a rather extended) version of The Document which serves as a record of progress and decisions made by FPP.. Said ‘progress’ will have an airing at the NZIF AGM (on Monday 10th August)..

    Your comments and criticisms would be very much appreciated – whatever they are.. (They won’t be worse than those of Piers McLaren..) But seriously, please do let us know how to improve it..

    I will add your name (if I may?) to an FPP email list for occasional news and developments..


    Garth Cumberland

    Phone: 09 446 1278 Email: Post: 16a Macky Ave, Devonport, AUCKLAND 0624.

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