Exclusive Preview From “The Circular Economy: A Wealth Of Flows”
Read Circulate’s exclusive preview of Ken Webster’s recently released book, The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows. The extract below is the beginning of the ninth chapter “The Regenerative Biological Cycle – At Scale”.
Author’s Note – One of the biggest opportunities for a circular economy can be found through regenerative agriculture, done at scale, and one of its biggest lessons is that we must study systems. The main barriers to a wealth of flows are in our minds.
If we were to change the philosophy, as we propose, into one that believes that instead of cutting costs you should generate more value with what you have, then you have a completely different approach to business!
There is much flag waving for the idea of an ‘upcycle’, a positive cycle where a circular economy is not just enduring but restorative or regenerative. More a spiral than a circle of course. Needless to say, this is a tough call in a world of take, make and dispose where food from South Africa is consumed in Russia or where 70% of the world’s production of children’s toys takes place in China but their use clearly does not. Any naïve idea of ‘loop closing’ on this sort of geographical scale is not going to happen, except as downcycling perhaps. The restorative and regenerative notion is energising, however: to rebuild natural (and social) capital in order to produce more and better goods and services and in the longer term. In Chapter 5 attention shifted to what can be achieved by better understanding stocks and flows.
This chapter goes in search of some of the keys to large-scale examples of how a restorative economy might be observed and developed. It finds them in the semi-arid grasslands, in the tropical food crop areas and in the rice paddies. The key was knowledge, but a systems perspective kind of knowledge, and one which had to be established – or better, rediscovered and fought for – against a backdrop of inertia, conventional wisdom and failure.
In the idealised schematic of a circular economy (page 19) the loop is eventually closed on the biological side and on land via the agency of sunlight, fungi and bacteria and the other communities of life in the soil. Here, then, soil is a simplified notion of natural capital in agricultural systems. As in the case of technical materials flows, it is easy to demonstrate the extractive and capital-reducing qualities of the existing linear system which has successfully substituted fossil fuel derived fertilisers, new crop and livestock configurations and machinery for labour in return for increased throughput . See graphs on global food production and fertiliser consumption.
“Today’s agriculture does not allow the soil to enrich itself, but depends on chemical fertilisers that don’t replace the wide variety of nutrients plants and humans need”
Dr Tim Lobstein, the UK’s Food Commission director.
Land degradation costs an estimated USD 40 billion annually worldwide, without taking into account the costs of increased fertiliser use, loss of biodiversity, and loss of unique landscapes .
Soil degradation is estimated to extend to some 25–35% of the 1.5 billion hectares of land under cultivation, meaning that it is less fertile, less able to retain water, less able to fend off pests, and more prone to erosion. Loss of soil carbon is problematic given the role of this carbon in several developing and maintaining factors that are critical to plant growth, such as soil texture, water retention and nutrient delivery to the roots of plants. In Europe, around 45% of soils have low or very low organic matter content, 45% have medium content .
The maps overleaf remind us of the extent and importance of agriculture as it relates to human welfare across large swathes of the world: in the savannah grasslands (cattle), sugar cane growing (crop monocultures) and paddy rice areas.
Between these three modes of agriculture it is possible to capture an excellent spread around some of the challenges of falling carbon content, deteriorating soil structure, desertification and excessive use of artificial fertiliser and pesticides and their ‘downstream’ externalities.
Gunter Pauli, in a 2013 interview with consultancy EMG describes how his innovation in the use of palm oil as a detergent base didn’t work as expected:
“I created the Ecover factory around 20 years ago, and all that time it has relied on palm oil to create many of its products; the same palm oil that is continuing to destroy rainforests. So I have to look at myself and consider the mistakes that I have made. In those days, I did not see that I was destroying the rainforest. But now I know!”
His failure was in a lack of systems thinking. In this example, the Ecover detergent helped to improve the quality of water in European rivers but led to accelerated rainforest destruction in Indonesia. After the experience, the learning.
It was a similar experience for Alan Savory who now heads research into holistic cattle grazing systems at the Savory Institute, USA. He was once responsible for the decision in what was Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to cull thousands of African elephants in the belief that reduced grazing would slow down or reverse the decline in the savannah grasslands. He bitterly regrets this decision and admits that he was completely wrong. He had failed to understand the system, the way these grasslands had evolved and the place of grazing, plant-eating animals.
The conventional wisdom is that reduced grazing is better – it sounds right. More herbivores, such as elephants or cattle, means more stress on the vegetation and less output and falling soil quality. But this is a partial understanding. Alan Savory came to realize that, in evolutionary terms, the grasslands developed in the presence of very large herds of herbivores and that this characteristic – of a large herd grazing everything, churning up the soil with their hooves and depositing faeces and urine and slobber before moving on – had a particular relevance to how the grassland worked as a system.
Taking it to the other extreme, Savory found evidence that leaving a semi-arid grassland without cattle or other herbivores means it doesn’t thrive, it becomes ‘stagnant’ – sub-optimal but reasonably stable. Nutrients are not returning to the soil as they are locked up in the dead stalks and stems of the earlier years, since rainfall is low and bacteria and fungi cannot get to work as they would prefer. Moreover sun-baked, bare earth develops a crust so that rain runs off more easily, land erodes and water which runs off is not available for plants – and brings flooding downstream. Some woody perennial plants begin to dominate and species diversity in the system declines.
In savannah that is intensely grazed by herds which then move on, the situation is very different. The stomachs of the cattle act as bioreactors. The water needed by bacteria and the bacteria themselves are active in the cattle stomachs and the resulting manures and urine are rich in minerals. In addition, the cattle hooves break up the soil surface and the non-discriminatory grazing leaves spaces for plants which would lose out in the ungrazed regime – particularly annual grasses.
It is the way the grasses react which is most interesting. Once heavily grazed, the grasses adapt their root structure to the needs of regrowth, effectively ‘dropping’ some roots since the structure above ground is much reduced: as the plant grows again the roots will regrow. This process ‘pulses’ carbon into the soils, but the key is that the new plant growth isn’t grazed too soon. That herd needs to be long gone and for quite a while. In conventional cattle grazing the interval between grazing periods is too short and the pressure on the habitat limits diverse plant species regrowth – the animals are choosy eaters if they can be and the energy of the grasses is never fully rebuilt.
The two diagrams on the left show how Savory believes the cycle of carbon loss from conventional and what he terms holistic grazing can be illustrated. In the holistic system at Savory Institute cattle grazing is established to mimic the grazing patterns of herbivores in natural savannah ecosystems – this ensures more effective nutrient cycling and build up of soil organic matter resulting in enhanced vegetation growth and cattle grazing land.
The photo below of cattle grazing lush ranchland  gives some clue to what a restorative biological cycle means: in this case better water retention as carbon levels are built up in vegetation and soil systems, leading to more resilience during drought periods; better output in terms of cattle per hectare; less soil erosion and greater biodiversity. Better flood control is a by-product for land downstream. All these benefits really need to be accounted for, but most are not. If a shallower focus is allowed, the plus is just more cattle. It sounds rather mean-spirited.
There are plenty of critics when it comes to such systems adjustment approaches, not least in that identifying what matters and what does not in a complex system is always up for debate. Often the objections run deeper. It is just not how we do things – focussing down on core competencies, defined outcomes feels like work and being in charge, whereas looking up to system level and waiting on the return of a certain fungus feels ‘woolly’ or imprecise. Which of course it is, these being complex adaptive systems with histories! The choice here of the work of the Savory Institute was made not least because something positive is happening as far as its practitioners are concerned and at scale. It is the same with the following case study, from the world of monocultures.
- See Towards the Circular Economy: Vol 2, pp 17-24, as a reminder of the existing pluses and minuses of the agricultural system operating on a large scale.
- Ibid p.21.
- Ibid p.22.