I’ve been growing food for about five years now, all the while heavily researching food and energy issues, and I’ll tell you one thing: I didn’t get into growing food because I wanted to have tomatoes that actually had taste, or fruit that didn’t smell like chemicals. I got into it for survival reasons, and only stumbled upon a deeper meaning, along with these other benefits, along the way.
It’s almost old news now. Geologists in the oil industry, economic leaders, and many others have openly admitted the reality of declining oil and natural gas supplies, or peak oil/natural gas.
“Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the whacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, and investment bankers in the world.”
So wrote Californian lawyer Matt Savinar sometime in 2007 on his website about surviving the coming economic collapse that he and many others knew would result from an emerging energy crisis. It was reading things like this that got me interested in growing food, in the beginning.
Whether this energy crisis has a political aspect to it or not, the fact remains that our food system isn’t only environmentally unsustainable, it also suffers from severe economic instability.
Unfortunately, modern agriculture relies heavily on fossil fuels (like oil and natural gas), and the price and availability of food is highly dependent on uncertain fossil fuel reserves. We need to remember that our lives, before everything else, are based on food. If, by definition, our food system isn’t sustainable, then human life isn’t sustainable, even in (no, especially in!) so-called “rich” countries.
Designer and architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart noted in their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, that we are accustomed to thinking of industry (e.g. industrial agriculture) and the environment as being at odds with one another.
But McDonough asks, “What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”
McDonough has designed many completely non-toxic, infinitely recyclable and biodegradable products, from chairs to whole buildings, which back up his optimism of such a society being possible.
The problem, when it comes to food, is that we don’t think of a farm as an ecosystem, and we don’t design them as such. Sure, organic farmers and many traditional farmers will say they do, but have you ever seen a farm that had the diversity and self-sufficiency of an actual living ecosystem, like a forest or healthy grassland?
They are around, but there aren’t many (if any) of them in Ontario.
What is a permanent culture?
The word permaculture, a term referring to a truly sustainable and permanent culture, was coined in the mid 1970s to describe “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
This description is from ecologist and designer Bill Mollison, who coined the term, and who later, with the help of another ecologist and fellow Australian, David Holmgren, developed an ecological design system around the concept.
Permaculture design, which can be applied to any field, has since taken on a life of its own and spread across the globe assimilating ancient and modern agricultural and ecological knowledge.
Soil is life
Although climate change and unpredictable oil and natural gas supplies are a huge concern in maintaining our food systems, the issue of soil erosion in modern agriculture goes largely unnoticed. To create a permanent food system, however, we need soil. Permanently.
Our current system’s reliance on a fragile, fossil fuel-centered supply chain to fertilize, toxify (with pesticides and herbicides), transport, store, and package food is the least of our concerns.
How about the fact that about 40 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is now seriously degraded? According to the UN, an area of fertile soil the size of Ukraine is lost every year because of poor farming practices. And it’s happening in Canada too.
To put it bluntly, a new system of agriculture is needed to prevent mass starvation.
Imagine a different food scenario, for a moment. Imagine a system that uses vertical space, like a forest, to achieve higher yields. Imagine all of the species in the system, from forest canopy, to understory, to shrubs, vines, smaller plants, ground covers and roots, all yielding food and/or medicine.
Then, imagine your favourite foods interspersed among garden clearings in this edible wilderness, receiving nutrients, protection from wind and pests, mulch, minerals, and everything else they need from the companion trees and plants around them. Imagine a food forest. These forests exist.
Natural forests build organic matter very quickly, not only protecting soil from erosion, but actually building it. Their biomass yields are far beyond a modern farm system, and what’s more, we can (and do) mimic them, but with species yielding edibles and medicinals.
There are even options for large scale industrial systems, which can employ alley cropping techniques that are being researched at the University of Guelph and many other places around the world. This involves planting valuable tree and other perennial crops in rows, with traditional or new crop choices in the alleys between.
How it works
Permaculture food systems typically use a diversity of perennial tree and non-woody crops, which provide permanent cover and protection from erosive wind and water forces.
At the same time, this diversity leads to many root depths, shapes and sizes, which stabilizes the soil and improve its structure, while minimizing competition. This fosters better water penetration (which prevents erosive runoff), and allows more oxygen into the soil, both of which feed the life of the soil, which in turn feeds the life of the plants.
Woody and non-woody perennials also have deeper root systems than annuals, which means they have a lot more potential for capturing and recycling nutrients.
Their litter contribution to the soil’s surface is also much greater than traditional crops (which still have a place). This free mulch is then slowly broken down by decomposers (insects, worms, bacteria, fungus) into soluble plant nutrients.
Other management practices in a permaculture food system that decrease the erodibility of the soil include no-till practices and the absence of heavy machinery, especially when the soil is wet. This lessens compaction (which decreases water infiltration and increases erosive runoff), and helps maintain ideal soil structure.
Creating a balance
The concepts and principles outlined here are only a glimpse of the complex interactions and forces at play in a permaculture system, and permaculture principles can be used on any scale.
Given that resources are not infinite, and many are quickly running out (like our soil, and our main energy sources), it might be wise for us to think about learning to design systems to grow at least some of our own food. And while we’re at it, we’ll be creating a world that not only supports life, but gives meaning to it.
Our goal, as McDonough puts it, should be “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”
— By Trent Rhode
Trent Rhode is a permaculture gardener, designer, teacher, and researcher living in Peterborough, Ontario. He has a background and education in communications and sustainable land use practices, and has been studying ecology and natural farming since 2004.