Designing Food Systems
When we think of food production today, most people imagine large fields of monocrops or grassland for grazing. We think of agriculture. Many people believe that agriculture (10,000 years ago) is inextricably tied with the human species. But when considering that modern humans have existed for over 200,000 years, this agricultural preoccupation does not seem so integral to our humanity. Before agriculture, humans practiced hunting and gathering, horticulture, and even some of what we would now call permaculture. The difference is that the goal of agriculture is to domesticate, control, and grow the plant in a much larger/denser way than would be found in the wild.
Once fully developed, agriculture centered on grains that could then be stored and transported. As handy as this was, it didn't prevent people from going hungry and it didn't do any favors for the overall health of the people. Lifespan dropped by 20 percent on average and there was an increase in epidemics/degenerative disease during the start of agriculture. This was likely caused by the negative health effects of grain-based diets on which there are hundreds of books written. Using grains as a staple, populations were able to expand rapidly while sacrificing overall human health and economic stability. Further, agricultural practices require LARGE amounts of human input in terms of labor, money, water and fertilizer. One could even argue that it was agriculture that paved the way for the monetary system. (The first currency took the form of things like grains and peppercorns.) It is easy to see that agriculture has evolved into a system linked with money, waste, and destruction of the environment. So, why did people choose this form of food production? There could be many reasons, but it is likely because: A) it allowed them to produce a lot of the same crop to then sell at a profit to buy possessions that wouldn't have been necessary or available in a hunter-gatherer/horticultural society, and B) they didn't know any other way.
I am not proposing that our food production systems need to revert back to a hunter-gatherer state. But what I am suggesting is that agriculture as we know it cannot and will not feed Earth's population in this economy or an RBE. Peter Joseph and others associated with The Zeitgeist Movement have, on many occasions, mentioned how food could be farmed vertically along the coasts using desalinated ocean water and a hydroponic system. While this is far more sensible than having our food grown by corporations or by impoverished farmers across the world, I don't think this type of growing method is optimal or even practical. Hydroponics is not without its merits, but it still requires input of manufactured plant fertilizers and mineral wool, does not create a wildlife habitat, and requires energy for water pumps and (in this case) desalination facilities. In addition, a failure in the technology that runs and maintains the system would quickly deteriorate the food supply. Aquaponics is an improvement on this idea, using aquatic organisms, usually fish, to recycle wastes from the plants and produce fertilizer for the plants to use. Nevertheless, it is still a closed system requiring human time and resources. Anytime you remove food production from a natural environment and move it into an artificial man-made system, you shift a burden from Mother Nature's back onto our back. Now, one could argue that advances in technology may overcome these disadvantages, but I would caution against the use of technology advancements that fly in the face of natural laws and forces. It's an uphill battle and there are low-tech options that are efficient and practical. Let's look at a possible alternative that seems more compatible with a resource-based economy.
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modeled on the relationships found in nature. Perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of permaculture is its promise of high yield without much labor input. I find that the philosophy of permaculture fits perfectly into The Zeitgeist Movement. It is based on natural laws, considers environmental impact, and seeks efficient and abundant production. How well does it deliver on these promises? A simple google search of permaculture projects around the world will likely answer this question. One in particular I like is a documentary called "Greening The Desert" in which Permaculture specialist Geoff Lawton turns a barren salted landscape in Jordan into a lush food forest using very simple low-tech methods which he then teaches to the villages who only need to "maintain" it from time to time while reaping its enormous yields. Consider the alternative of piping in fresh water, trucking in fertilizer and soil, or building hydroponic or vertical growing facilities. No matter how you look at the numbers, the former will result in the most abundant producing, resource-sparing, long-lasting solution to a food shortage not only in Jordan but in any climate or landscape.
Still not convinced of how permaculture can out-produce traditional agricultural practices? Let's look at a real world example from the book "Edible Forest Gardens" page 32, where a common permaculture polyculture called "Three-Sisters" is compared to a traditional monocrop of corn.
"Professor Jane Mt. Pleasant of Cornell University studied the polyculture of corn, pole beans, and squash. She found that these plots grown in the traditional Iroquois way yielded about 25-40 bushels of corn per acre. This compares poorly to the 100-bushels per acre average for modern New York State famers. Then she added the value of the beans and squash from the same plots. The total yield of the three sisters system was 4.02 million calories per acre compared to the 3.44 million calories per acre."
So not only did the three-sisters style farming produce 17 percent more food calories than the traditional agricultural style, it also provided many other benefits. The plants relied on each other for their needs, reducing need for human input. The nitrogen-fixing beans removed the need for fertilizer. The squash's broad flat leaves mulched the ground reducing weed growth and water evaporation. This eliminated or mitigated the need for herbicide and water irrigation. And, of course, the corn provided a sturdy stalk for the beans to climb. Moreover, this variety of crops helps prevent disease or pests from overtaking the all-too-vulnerable monocrop. These problems generally occur when the disease or pests find large fields of one type of plant which they then consume rapidly whilst multiplying in numbers.
This is just the beginning of what permaculture can do for food production. Consider that same acre planted with PERENNIAL plants that all cooperate and benefit each other. They produce their crop automatically year after year, unlike annuals which need to be replanted. The crops rely on the other plants, animals and insects to balance most of their needs and on humans to maintain and guide their growth. Very little is wasted in this type of system. Its sustainability and longevity is truly astounding!
Permaculture should be thought of as a philosophy and frame of mind when making decisions about design. The design guidelines can be applied to many things in a resource-based economy besides food production. The need for timber, fiber, medicinal plants, and heating/cooling is addressed in the most efficient way possible using permaculture techniques. This is because the designs are often based on natural laws. Geometry, chemistry, physics and biology all come into play in order to best simulate nature's designs which have evolved over millions of years. My goal is to connect The Zeitgeist Movement with the permaculture movement as best I can. In my opinion, the success of both depends on it!
Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier