Changing the Conditions to Promote Polycultures
The economic and social incentives in agriculture don’t reward any real technological innovation for polycultures. How do we change those incentives?
Intercrop harvesting at scale is a considerable blind spot in agriculture and I won’t claim to have the technical expertise to produce the solution directly. For this, I’m grateful that people like you have engaged in the conversation and offered your technical insights.
The part of this conversation that captivates me most is how we might create the conditions that’ll incentivize the best minds to innovate for polycultures at scale. This probably puts us on a multi-generational time scale for any meaningful change to occur, but I’m nevertheless interested in starting this conversation now.
For me, it’s a question of how to shift the financial and sociological factors so that the technological challenges of intercropping have a chance to be overcome. Along these lines, a few thoughts on the conditions that would need to exist for more polyculture and less monoculture…
1. Creating a economic and cultural premium for polyculture
We could certainly hand harvest Three Sisters now and turn it into a value-added, premium brand targeted at the affluent who can bear the considerably larger cost of production as a first step. This isn’t the endgame, it’s simply the first step to demonstrate that something like a Three Sisters can demand that premium, which would hopefully bring more supply, lower prices, and increased R&D on automated harvesting.
It’s no different than Tesla wanting to create a luxury car first to help fund the extensive R&D required to making a mainstream, affordable electric car in the next 10–15 years. If we can create demand with a compelling product and an impactful story, then the innovation can follow.
Polycultures haven’t been the norm because the dependably profitable green revolution style monocultures have given little incentive for many farmers to do otherwise. Even converting to organic farming has proven troublesome for many farms, but we’re seeing market demands change that right now. I fully recognize it’s a huge challenge to harvest something like Three Sisters, but I truly believe the first domino that needs to fall is creating demand.
2. Focusing on other polycultures that lend themselves to scale
Three Sisters have a great metaphor going for them that makes the idea of polyculture very vivid for the layperson. You can literally see the three women in your mind, which goes a long way in telling the story to the uninitiated. I specifically chose it because it’s a much better conversational icebreaker than “I’d like to sell you a product made from cucumbers, beans, celery, and chives.”
However, from this conversation and in others, I’m seeing that it might be a particularly impractical polyculture from the reasons you clearly listed out. The question then becomes: what other polycultures can be made into a highly desirable product while minimizing harvesting obstacles and maximizing the typical agricultural benefits of polycultures (e.g., reduced inputs, more pest/disease resilience, etc.).
In addition to Three Sisters, we also created a concept product called Crop Crisps, which are 4-flavors of cracker made from all the crops in a 4-crop rotation (lentil, hard red winter wheat, garbanzo/fava, white winter wheat). So until we have combines that can artfully pick corn, beans, and squash from the same plot, maybe we need to pick our battles and focus on ‘easier’ polycultures?
3. Canceling out (or mitigating) higher labor costs with productivity and input efficiency
How might we design a system where the cost of hand harvesting is softened by a significant rise in pounds per acre and a drop in outside inputs like fertilizer and pesticide? This is where the math gets tricky and the more convoluted depending on the crops we’re talking about, but we need to emphasize the net benefit of a particular polyculture rather than the impact of one of the production components. This relates to my last point about making considered choices of which polyculture to practice.
4. Focusing solely on non-industrial scale agriculture
I agree that not all farmers should be aspiring to scale to industrial levels, especially if they’re striving to promote polycultures. Maybe it’s futile to try and wedge polycultures into industrial scale ag and simply work to promote them more heavily in smaller, mission driven farms. While we may not put a huge dent in the total agricultural output in the world, how might we make the principles of polyculture have an outsized cultural impact?
5. Advancement of truly disruptive tech, such as robotic harvesting
I’ll be the first to admit that automated, robotic harvesting technologies are not yet ready for prime time. However, I wonder about the agricultural options that become available if these technologies mature. Might effective harvesting of something like Three Sisters depend on something like this coming to fruition in the next few decades? Do these solutions have a fighting chance of one day being real solutions, or are they simply novelties of current day?
I wonder how many of the above things would need to happen to really change the dynamic and make polyculture a more obvious choice in the mainstream. What other conditions in the world would need to exist for polyculture ag to further proliferate?