Capitalism Must Price Carbon – Or Die

This was a speech I gave at the Harmony in Food and Farming conference in Llandovery, Wales in July 2017.

Please click here to see video clips of the Prince of Wales, Patrick Holden and myself during the conference, which was organized by The Sustainable Food Trust. It aimed to develop an agricultural perspective on the ideas propounded in the book ‘Harmony’ by HRH The Prince of Wales and Tony Juniper.

In 1967 Joni Mitchell wrote a song called Woodstock that included these lines:

“We are stardust, We are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves

back to the garden”

We are indeed ‘billion year old carbon’ – the average person of about 80kgs/176lbs  contains about 15kgs/33lbs of carbon.  That ancient carbon is in our bones, our muscle, our fat and our bloodstream, as carbohydrate, fat, protein and other compounds.  The carbon in our bodies may have been previously in soil, in trees, in charcoal, in dinosaur turds, in mosquitoes, in honey…  It was everywhere before it ‘reincarbonated’ in us.  Carbon is immortal.   And it is stardust. Continue reading

V&A Keynote Speech

The V&A ‘Revolution – Records and Rebels 1966-1970) exhibition closed earlier in 2017.  I was invited to give the keynote speech at the launch dinner at the museum.  It was well received.  Here’s the text:

While staying in a Sikh temple in Delhi in April 1965 a couple of guys from San Francisco gifted me with a 1000 microgram capsule of Sandoz pharmaceutical grade LSD.  I took my first trip in September of 1965, 51 years ago almost to the day.  Then I went back to complete my final year at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.   In October Timothy Leary came to Philadelphia with his message to explore higher consciousness.  This created a psychedelic community, as happened wherever Leary went. Continue reading


The curse of nuclear power and its associated mass extermination weaponry has hung over the heads of several generations since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were conned by promises of ‘electricity too cheap to meter’ when the first British nuclear plant was erected at Calder Hall (renamed ‘Windscale’ then renamed ‘Sellafield) but in fact it now costs more than wind or solar. Now Toshiba, who suicidally bought the Westinghouse nuclear business, is consulting bankruptcy lawyers. Electricité de France, 85% owned by the French Government, is in terminal decline, with a share price ten percent of historic highs.  Continue reading

Larry Smart

I first met Larry in 1967, when he was in the dance troupe Exploding Galaxy.


They would perform free-style dance at the weekly hippie gathering, the UFO Club, in between sets by the Pink Floyd.  They helped encourage everyone to ‘freak out’ their dancing style.  The Exploding Galaxy were part of a commune which lived in North London and took their name from a painting by Larry of the same name.  They were immortalised in the book 99 Balls Pond Road by Jill Drower, one of the communards.

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Mose Allison

Apart from Wagner, of all the music that has embedded itself in my mind and my soul, perhaps none had a deeper grip than that of Mose Allison. Born on a cotton farm in northwest Mississippi in 1927, he was a country boy who experienced and was shaped by the Depression years in the Midwest. Perhaps he resonated with me so much because our farm was a few hundred miles north in Nebraska. Whatever, he got me deep down. Country boy with jazz infusion.

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1960s Rebels: Craig Sams, Health Food Pioneer from Victoria & Albert Museum

In conjunction with their exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 (10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017), the Victoria and Albert have uploaded a series of videos interviewing 1960s Rebels including myself.

The late 1960s saw progressive ideas emanate from the countercultural underground and revolutionise society. Challenging oppressive, outdated norms and expectations, a small number of individuals brought about far-reaching changes as they sought to attain a better world. Their idealism and actions helped mobilise a movement which continues to inspire modern activists and shape how we live today.


xorganic-farming-640x426-jpg-pagespeed-ic-thzrqz2irqWhen a business sector sees a rash of mergers and acquisitions, it’s for one of two reasons, growth or decay. The organic food industry has seen a lot of acquisitions by companies anxious to get in on the ground floor of the 5% annual growth rate in organic food and regenerative farming. Meanwhile, on the dark side, Monsanto is facing takeover by Bayer, not for any positive reasons, but because they are both looking into the abyss. Merger is one way to survive when the farmers they are competing for are spending less. Farmers aren’t stupid – they can do the maths. When they see diminishing returns on their investment in seeds and agrichemicals, they reduce their spending. Continue reading

Rhythm ‘n’ Bliss – Thomas Cohen Single

When Victor Gutierrez asked me to front the video for Thomas Cohen’s debut single ‘Bloom Forever’ it was a pleasure to agree.  The actual shoot, like all shoots, demanded an unboreable brain that can ride out the repeated performing of the same stuff until eventually Victor was happy to do it in one run.   ‘Bloom Forever’ has a haunting melody that, not just because I’ve heard it 100 times now, is embedded in my brain and pops up uninvited but welcome quite often.  It’s hard to classify, not lounge, not chillout, not a lullabye – not quite sure what to call it… but imagining Thomas writing this in the maternity ward having just ‘had’ his child, a son, in the bliss of first parenthood, helps explain the quality of the song that I just can’t quite nail.

“Rhythm ‘n’ Bliss” perhaps?

Thomas Cohen: ‘Bloom Forever’ on YouTube


Is Agribusiness a ‘stranded asset’ class?

Is it time for investors to dump Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer?

The UNFCC has launched its ‘4 per 1000’ initiative based on data from the French National Institute for Agronomic Research that shows that just by increasing overall the carbon-rich organic matter of soil by 0.4% per annum we could completely and totally offset all our annual GHG greenhouse gas emissions.  The farming methods that can take carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it in the soil include big reductions of nitrate fertilisers and fungicides.  Just doing that will make a difference as they represent a 15% contribution to annual GHG emissions.  The rest comes from ‘agroecological’ practices, mostly pioneered by organic and biodynamic farmers, that are now tested, refined and proven to be competitive in yield with industrial methods of farming.  They do not deliver high revenue streams to agribusiness companies and they also do not externalise all sorts of other costs onto society.  These biggest cost is greenhouse gas emissions as that’s the planetary existential threat.  But the personal and social costs are pretty costly, too: pesticide residues in food, soil erosion, dust storms, water pollution, flooding, biodiversity loss, toxic algal blooms and an archaic subsidy system that has the hard-working poor subsidising rich landowners in the name of ‘cheap food.’.  But forget about that, just concentrating on the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from farming is enough.  There are plenty of untested technological solutions like mirrors in space or the delusion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that you can pump carbon dioxide into old oil wells and somehow convince yourself and everyone else that it will stay there.   The beauty of what I should like to call Soil Carbon Capture and Storage (SCCS) is that with soil carbon, what goes in the ground stays in the ground.   All it needs is the right price signals.  If carbon has a value then the farmer who reduces emissions and increases sequestration will be rewarded. When carbon has a value it will be traded and there is no need for complicated and inequitable government farm subsidy policies that punish environmentally responsible behaviour.  SCCS farmers will sell their carbon right alongside their corn and beans.

Ideally a SCCS farmer would receive three carbon-related payments per annum,  as well, of course as their normal income and profit from growing wheat or carrots or alfalfa or eggs or whatever .  There would be a capital payment and an interest payment and an avoided emissions payment.  Here’s how it could work:

  1. Capital Payment:  This is a payment to a farmer for the net annual increase of carbon in the soil.   Rodale’s research has shown that an organic farm can sequester 2.5 tonnes CO2 per hectare per year.  There are 1.5 billion hectares of farmland and 3.5 billion hectares of pasture.  For farmland alone, 1.5 billion ha. times 2.5 tonnes is 3.75 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum.  Conversely, a farm that continues to reduce its soil carbon annually would have to pay for that reduction.
  2. Soil Interest Payment – This would be an ‘interest’  payment of the market price of carbon based on the amount of carbon that is already in the soil, the ‘deposit’ so to speak.
  3. Avoided emissions payment – emissions include fossil fuels and the emissions involved in the manufacture and application of fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural equipment.

How does it work in practice?   Let’s say a farmer has 100 hectares of land.   The carbon price is $50 per tonne CO2.  There are already 60 tonnes of CO2 as soil organic matter per hectare.  The farmer adds 2.5 tonnes in one year.  What is the annual carbon payout?

Capital Payment: 100 hectares x 2.5 tonnes x $50 =   $ 12,500

Interest Payment: 100 hectares x 60 x 0.5%            =   $    3,000

Avoided emissions payment:  1 tonne $50  x 100     = $    5,000

So the farmer can sell carbon credits to gain an additional $20,500 of revenue on 100 hectares

What about the  industrial farmer?

Capital Payment: 1 tonne p.a. soil CO2 decrease, $50 x 100   =   – $5,000

Interest Payment: 100 hectares x 60 x 0.5%            =                        $ 3,000

Emissions Payment:   .5 tonne CO2/ha =                                          $ 2,500

(a fee for nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide emissions from the soil due to the use of nitrate fertiliser and pesticides and fungicides)

Total carbon cost of farming as usual:                                          $4,500

Total ‘spread’ between SCCS farmer and industrial farmer 100 hectares:

$20,500 + $ 4,500  =  $25,000

If yields are equal and input costs are comparable then this is a significant edge in competitiveness in favour of the agroecological or organic farmer.

That’s $250 per hectare.  About what a farmer gets nowadays by way of government subsidy but, instead of it coming from the taxpayer and the farmer acting as a conduit that channels it to agribusiness the payment is funded by the carbon markets and most of the money stays in the farmer’s pocket.

Michael Pollan’s made a lovely video that tells the story of soil carbon.  And Deborah Garcia’s film ‘Symphony of the Soil’ is certainly worth watching to get a full understanding of the real underfoot magic of our existence.

And the Financial Times published my letter on December 18th 2015 that was a warning to investors not to get caught in a meltdown of agribusiness shares similar to what’s been happening with fossil fuel company shares – the writing is on the wall for businesses that generate high greenhouse gas emissions – there’s no hiding place any more.  The Paris talks have tipped the balance.


FT Re Carbon Dec 18 tw.jpg


Sugar – All They Want is the Tax, Man

Before everyone stampedes into a sugar tax, may I just try to shine a small beam of light of sanity into this increasingly hysterical ‘debate?’ I’m no sugar lover and have fought the good fight to keep my consumption as low as possible for many decades. In 1971, in my book About Macrobiotics I wrote: “If sugar were discovered yesterday it would be banned and possibly handed over to the Army for weapons research.’ But at the same time, without sugar we’d all be dead. It’s all about how much we consume and in what form – simple or complex.

But when even the Financial Times editorialises about ‘The Compelling Case for a Sugar Tax’ it’s time to dig a little deeper into the obesity and diabetes epidemic before rushing out to slap a tax on drinks containing sugar.   What have taxes on booze, fags and petrol ever done to reduce consumption? Governments will always love the tax option, it’s so much easier to make money out of a problem than to solve it.

To begin with we need to understand about blood sugar. I am going to oversimplify. Life depends on glucose, the simplest sugar. When we eat or drink sugar, the glucose element quickly tops up our blood sugar level because blood sugar is glucose. The fructose element follows a different metabolic pathway and ends as fat or stored glycogen in the liver, which can then be converted into glucose when it is needed.

When we eat too much sugar the blood glucose level rises to dangerous levels and the pancreas pumps out insulin to bring it down. But it overshoots, so the insulin keeps taking glucose sugar out of the blood and before you know it, the blood glucose level is too low. The body panics as sugar is vital to cell function and brain function, so it tells the liver to release some of its stores of glucose, which helps. But the liver only has a limited supply and struggles to keep up with the demand, so the craving for sugar eventually becomes irresistible. It’s a natural inbuilt survival mechanism to crave sugar when blood sugar levels are low.

In our gut there are 10,000 different types of microbes, including useful candida yeasts, which help with the breakdown of sugar. When there’s a lot of sugar those candida multiply like crazy and outcompete the other gut flora. Worse than that, they mutate into a resilient and greedy fungal form that demands more and more sugar. Candida gets a lock on your brain and remotely controls your appetite to deliver more sugar. You can’t tax candida, you have to kill it. By starvation. Once candida is put back in its box the cravings for sugar diminish. Probiotics can help to suppress candida, as will berberine, grapefruit seed extract, garlic and oregano. But the key is to cut off its food supply.  But starving candida ain’t easy.

How does candida get such a grip? Candida’s takeover of our digestive process is much easier when the other gut flora, such as lactobacilli or bifidobacteria, are dead or dying.

This happens when you take antibiotics or regularly consume food that contains antibiotic residues, particularly non-organic chicken and pork. Other medications that kill off the digestive system microbial community and clear the path for yeasts and candida include birth control hormones, hormone replacement therapy, acid-suppressing drugs and steroids. Doctors who dish out antibiotics for common cold are helping drive the obesity epidemic.  Maybe we should tax doctors who dish out antibiotics willy-nilly?

Caffeine plays a role, too. Ever notice how many people piously say ‘no’ to sugar in their tea or coffee, and then have a brownie or a big cookie? A brownie can contain twice the sugar of a can of Coke.   Caffeine increases the flow of blood to the brain, where ¼ of our sugar consumption takes place – thinking is hard work and uses a lot of glucose. Drinking a double espresso accelerates your brain and the rate at which you burn glucose, leading to low blood sugar and sugar cravings. The liver just can’t keep up with converting glycogen to glucose. People ingest a lot more caffeine nowadays than ever before. In Britain there has been a dramatic fall in scone and teacake consumption too, with a corresponding rise in consumption of cookies, muffins and brownies. Drink it or eat it, sugar is sugar.

Alcohol also creates sugar cravings. Especially on an empty stomach. Alcohol increases insulin output, which reduces blood glucose levels and it inhibits the liver from producing glucose to top up those levels. Result? Uncontrollable urges to consume sugar.

How about a glass of milk? Milk contains 5% sugars, about half what you’d get from a can of Coke. Tax milk at half the rate of soft drinks? Tell that to the NFU.  Is giving kids milk instead of water doing more harm because of the sugar than good because of the calcium?

If you’re going to tax sugar, then ALL sugar should be taxed, regardless of whether it’s in a brownie or a glass of apple juice or a cup of tea or a can of Coke. Whether sugar comes from a cane, a root, a bee, a cactus, a coconut tree, a maple tree, a cow, a goat, a camel or a grape or an orange or an apple or a pineapple it should be taxed equally. Otherwise you just move sugar consumption around based on pricing. Taxation never stopped people smoking but education and bans in public places has helped.

So what’s the answer? There are organic natural sweeteners such as stevia, licorice and erythritol that can provide a sweet taste without the glucose impact of sugar. But ultimately there are 3 words that sum it up: education, education, education. The Soil Association’s massively successful Food For Life school meals programme supplies 2 million school meals a day that commit to be freshly prepared, with local and organic ingredients. Jeannette Orrey, the legendary autobiographical author of “Dinner Lady” told me recently that Food For Life school meals now often have puddings made with half the sugar than usual and some participating schools are no longer serving pudding at all and the kids are cool about it. Time builds up bad habits. If kids grow up with minimal exposure to excesses of sugar, fruit juice, milk, cookies and other sugar sources and are helped to restore healthy probiotic conditions in their gut after exposure to antibiotics or other medications then they will be healthy adults with sensible appetites and a much lower predisposition to obesity and diabetes. For the rest of us, particularly those who have overdosed on sugar from an early age, the path to health is much harder and, for some, impossible. A tax will never solve this, education and behavior change will.

My Salad Breakfast

This morning, for breakfast, I went into the garden with a couple of slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise and a rice cake smeared with Jersey butter. Then I proceeded to pick from my winter salad garden: lamb’s lettuce, French parsley, various Japanese winter veg including mizuna and two frilly but intensely hot mustardy greens, land cress (a thicket self seeded from a single plant earlier this year), lettuce, winter purslane and, for a touch of the bitters, artemisia – wormwood. I added a leaf of radicchio from plants that have sprung up through the brickwork of a path. Just as we think of ‘food miles’ there is a parallel concept of ‘food days’ from harvest to consumption. In this case it was ‘food seconds’ – the leaves barely knew they had been plucked before they disappeared into the welcoming warm darkness of my esophagus, still brimming with vitality as they headed for the acid bath of my stomach.  Continue reading

Soil Carbon: Where Life Begins


Back in 1967 my brother and I ran an organic macrobiotic restaurant and food store – we followed macrobiotics, the way of eating described in the book Zen Macrobiotics by Georges Ohsawa. The restaurant bought as much as possible from organic producers around London so we built strong links with the Soil Association, which was founded by Lady Eve Balfour in 1946.   In order to talk about biochar I will first talk about soil, because that is the context into which biochar fits.   Satish Kumar also spoke about soil last year in his excellent magazine Resurgence. Continue reading

The Future of Food, Wessanen




Apples: the Frugal Fruit


Great grandparents were Nebraska sodbusters. They grew apples and mulberries and watermelon



Apples – Apple pie, baked apples,  apple crumble, apple butter, apple jelly from the peels, dried apples, sold apples to stores in Sioux City.  Canned applesauce and apple butter and  stored in the cave that was the original house.  Continue reading

Al Gromer Khan’s Jazz Christmas

A very insightful memoir from Al Gromer Khan about his days in London – on New Year’s Eve he and Mike Figgis played at Seed Restaurant…when John Lennon and Yoko Ono came in.

Chapter from Jazz Christmas by Al Gromer Khan, reproduced with kind permission of the author. Published 2011, his novella a clef captures the transition in the London scene from jazz and R&B to the alternative society and psychedelia.

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