Reposted from Charles Eisenstein blog
At a conference a couple weeks ago an activist who does work in Africa recounted an encounter she had with the minister of agriculture of a certain African country. The minister spoke with excitement about the high-tech agricultural technologies he was bringing into the country in partnership with large agribusiness companies, so the activist brought up the topic of organic agriculture. The minister said, “Stop. You don’t understand. We cannot afford such luxuries here. In my country, people are starving.”
This reflects a common conception about organic agriculture – that it sacrifices productivity in the interests of the environment and health. It stands to reason that if you forgo pesticides and chemical fertilizer, yields are going to suffer.
This, in fact, is a myth. In Sacred Economics I cite research showing that when it is done properly, organic growing methods can deliver two to three times the yield of conventional methods. (Studies showing the opposite are poorly constructed. Of course if you take two fields and plant each with a monocrop, then the one without pesticides will do worse than the one with, but that isn’t really what organic farming is.) Conventional agriculture doesn’t seek to maximize yield per acre; it seeks to maximize yield per unit of labor. If we had 10% of the population engaged in agriculture rather than the current 1%, we could easily feed the country without petrochemicals or pesticides.
It turns out, though, that my statistics are way too conservative. The latest permaculture methods can deliver much more than just double or triple the yield of conventional farming. I recently came across this article by David Blume chronicling his nine-year permaculture enterprise in California. Running a CSA for 300-450 people on two acres of land, he achieved yields eight times what the Department of Agriculture says is possible per square foot. He didn’t do it by “mining the soil” either – soil fertility increased dramatically over his time there.
When people project an imminent food crisis based on population growth or Peak Oil, they take for granted the agricultural methods we practice today. Thus, while the transitional period may involve temporary food shortages and real hardship, permaculture methods can easily feed the peak world population of perhaps 10 or 11 billion we’ll see by mid-century.
It is true that the old, control-based methods of agriculture are nearing the peak of their productive potential. Further investments in this kind of technology are bringing diminishing marginal returns – witness the proliferation of Roundup-resistant weeds and the “necessity” of new kinds of herbicides to deal with them. This parallels the situation with so many other kinds of control-based technology, whether in medicine, in education, politics…. we are indeed nearing the end of an era.
One sign that this is so is that the old models are not working financially anymore either. Once upon a time, monocropping may have been the most economically efficient way to farm, but today even farmers who play by the conventional rules can barely stay in business. Blume outperforms them not only ecologically and yield-wise, but also financially. Making the transition to permaculture is therefore a transition in our thinking, our habits, and our forms of economic organization. It springs naturally from ecological thinking, it embodies that habit of service to others, and it concords with the economic form of small, independent or cooperative producers. For this reason, it does not easily fit into the operations of large agribusiness corporations. (Let us note, though, that they too are becoming obsolete in their current hierarchical, centralized form.)
The defining image of 20th century agriculture was the huge combine harvesting endless fields of grain. I’d like to offer a very different vision for 21st century agriculture:
(1) High-intensity permaculture around major population centers that meet 80/% of their food needs. Blume points out that even without modern permaculture techniques, the city of New York, with over one million people, met all its food needs from within seven miles prior to 1850.
(2) Widespread gardens replacing a significant portion of America’s current number one crop: lawn grass. Many suburbs could be nearly self-sufficient in food.
(3) A healing of the damaged lands of the farm belt and a restoration of the original forests and prairies of many of those areas. With high-intensity local production, many of the acres planted with corn, wheat, and soybeans in the Midwest will be unnecessary for food production. This is not to say that commodity crops for export to other regions will disappear, just that they will have a much diminished role.
(4) Increased biofuels production on decreased acreage. While most biofuel in the U.S. Is made from corn, Blume points out that other crops can deliver as much as ten times the fuel per acre – and that’s not even counting cellulose conversion technologies.
(5) As presaged by the resurgence of interest in farming among young people, a far greater proportion of the population will be engaged in agriculture, and gardening will be nearly universal. Depopulated rural areas will be repopulated and small town economies will flourish based on local production and consumption.
In America, the transition to this vision will involve a severe disruption of our present way of life. In other countries where people still practice small-scale farming akin to modern permaculture, the transition might be much smoother. They can leapfrog the 20th century directly into the 21st, without repeating our ecologically and socially devastating mistakes. People in other lands can adapt the principles of permaculture to their own specific environmental and social circumstances. This is not about clever white people inventing a new model and imposing it on someone else. (Indeed, many permaculture techniques have been adopted from indigenous farmers around the world.) It is about everyone learning from everyone else, all guided by the ideal of wedding agronomy to ecology and fostering bioregional food self-sufficiency.
In my singular opinion…
It is obvious that there is no logical defense of agri-business.
The proponents of organic farming have their hearts in the right places.
However, organic agriculture is not simply a matter of different methods. There are probably a mountain of insurmountable complications that would be encountered in attempting to implement sustainable, healthy agriculture. One simple example is the improbability of relocating all of the necessary workforce to rural locations – the housing alone would be virtually impossible to create. Also, citing an 1850 example of New York with an eighth of the current population and surrounded by an unencumbered and ecologically rich landscape does nothing to illuminate the reality of the situation.
But aside from the practical complexities associated with a serious consideration of implementing permaculture, it is simply too late. The game is over. Industrial human society is toast. Indicting agri-business is merely blowing off steam, and in that light, perhaps, the rant is worth the effort. But the moment of brilliance has long passed, and I can’t find the overriding value of these types of psychoprophylactic distractions.
I don’t know – maybe reality is too much for us to bear.
In 1997 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called “To Live Until We Say Goodbye,” which for me is probably the foremost motto with which I’m living my life. When we are focused only on the survival of the physical being, we are going to hold the perspective of “It’s too late to save the world; we’re all toast; we’re screwed; I’m sick of hearing ‘psychoprophylactic distractions’.” If the focus is only on physical survival, that is a logical response. However, what I am ranting and raving and screaming and pleading for people to do is shift the focus beyond physical survival to the perspective that WE HAVE ALL BEEN ADMITTED TO HOSPICE. Here we are, patients in hospice, and we don’t know how long we have to live. Physically speaking, yeah, we’re screwed. After you stare down Fukushima and catastrophic climate change, if you have a shred of honesty in you, you have to admit that you’re in hospice. SO, we’re in hospice. So HOW do we want to live the rest of our days? Charles offers one option for living our lives. Perhaps we will get to live that out and actually create an abundant permaculture garden that feeds our family and maybe even our community, or maybe we won’t.
But can we please, please, please get beyond this “Oh we’re all gonna die so we’re fucked, and I don’t want to hear anything about living with meaning, purpose, joy, or abundance because as you all know, we’re fucked.” Could we please get beyond this typically industrially civilized perspective????
How do we want to live until we say goodbye? Yes, we’re fucked, and we’re all gonna die, AND what are you going to to do create joy and beauty and compassion for yourself and earth community today, tomorrow, and the next day? To expect more from life at this point is to wallow in the old paradigm with hubris and self-loathing cynicism.
Well, ‘reality’ is what’s happening right now, no matter how dire or overwhelming apocalyptic forecasts may be. I and many others still need to eat, and while it may be too late to Save The World, we can still try to save ourselves in our local environments. Spreading information about sound food-growing techniques is probably one of the more useful things that can be done, aside from actually putting them into practice.
I agree wholeheartedly in the spirit of both of the comments above.
I am not suggesting giving up.
I am suggesting that we be literal, logical, and practical. Let’s not, for example, spend our time and energies pretending that there is going to be any such thing as “21st century agriculture”. We’ve had all of the global awakening that we are ever going to have. What remains are individuals coming together on very personal and local levels. Let’s do it!
Let’s begin to get off the airplanes, to migrate towards those hills, to pick up a hitchhiker, to give away our services, to grow more garden, and to do as y’all suggest all of the other things that might help mitigate the suffering. Or perhaps, we need to just stay home, get poorer, and be less of a part of the problem.
How do we stay sane when there are no solutions?
But inventing new tooth fairies will not help.
Flailing about will not help.
Pretending that we can “transition to this vision” does not help.
Mike…It would be greatly helpful to your readers if you could frame all of this with “I” statements. What is helpful to you is not necessarily helpful to others, and what is helpful to others is not necessarily helpful to you. What I resist vehemently is your angrily trashing other options which some people find very helpful to themselves. We don’t need this kind of arrogance and condescension in the broken, battered world in which we now abide and which is only getting worse. Frankly, I find it repugnant and yet another version of the old paradigm.
In the wonderful book entitled Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land by Gary Paul Nabhan, he tells about an encounter with a Sufi Mystic and visionary farmer who is restoring and linking oasis after oasis near Fez in Morocco. The man’s name is Aziz Bousfiha. During a tour of his incredible gardens in the desert, he was asked if he thought his vision of creating more resilient and desert-adapted agriculture could actually work given the reality of global warming.
He laughed and said, “I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic-and is probably similar to ones in other languages-that may say it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us and the end of life may be coming…and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting!”
I know for me that I have been so brainwashed by religion and science to think that everything is either Armageddon or pure physicality. When i fall into that trap, I feel as helpless as a lamb to slaughter. But as time goes on, I am being led to the imaginal notion that there is a divine intelligence beyond both limiting belief systems that has a big hand in what is happening right now and perhaps has more than a few surprises for us once we begin to cooperate with the paradigm shift now fully moving into acceleration mode.
I wish everyone peace in spite of appearances and work to trust that if I can deal with the violence and unacknowledged rage, terror, and grief inside me, I can begin to truly be of service to others and thereby help save the world, regardless of the outcome. Stopping my own projections is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.
Santa Fe, New Mexico