Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How to feed people and conserve soil

Dear Friends,
The previous blog on Permaculture led to an interesting conversation with an old and treasured friend, Herb Jenkins, professor-emeritus from McMaster University. When Herb's enquiring mind played on the issues of our present endeavour, I knew we were in for an interesting conversation. This blog will reproduce part of it, with Herb's permission. I'll begin, however, with

What's happening to us.

Jack and I have moved to a house we'll be in for some time, ending our nomadic phase. This house was already on part of the village land and has no aesthetic or ecological merits, having been built with a permit for a shed! It is redeemed by the marvellous views of ocean and mountains, sunrises and sunsets. Our goods arrived and, amazingly, have made it feel something like a home. We even have a temporary dog. Sid, a working sheep dog, arrived with his owner who became the project's land manager. There is no other convenient place for him to stay, and I enjoy having him.

Jack has been working hard on the necessary planning to get Regional Council approval. He and I worked on the section on Recreation and Conservation, in both of which areas the village provisions far exceed Council requirements. The conservation measures planned are quite extensive, especially with respect to native forest.
Jack has just attended the board meeeting of the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco. He presented a discussion paper on the population issue, a delicate one for any organization. The IFG Board is strong on Third World representation, which ensures a wide range of views on this issue. Energy issues was another area in which Jack had particular interests and responsibilities.

He has gone from there to have an immersion experience in frolicking with the two grandchildren in Troy, southern Ontario, and is hoping that the third, due any day now, arrives while he is there.

Last month I spent some time at workshops on democratic functioning - seeing this as very relevant to developing a well-functioning community. It was more experiential than any learning I've ever undertaken, and I think has added to my understanding and skills. These were held at Riverside, the established community I've mentioned - a great asset to the region.

Now to the conversation with Herb.

Discussion of how to feed people and conserve soil.

Herb's letter:
Hi Joanna,
We have read your blogs with great interest. The one on the idea of a village was very provocative. I was struck by the boldness of what I take to be the major claim behind village based permaculture; namely, that living in major urban concentrations dependent on distant sources of food produced by large scale specialized food production is not sustainable. Urban depopulation, rural repopulation, and ecologically sensitive, science based, smaller scale, village based, agricultural production could be sustainable.
The prescription appears to go against the view that we need residential intensification to contain or reverse the environmentally costly, land gobbling, urban/suburban sprawl. But maybe it doesn’t really go against that view since residential intensification is talked about in the context of agriculturally non productive land use. But are you worried that if the village-permaculture movement became widespread, it might entail the conversion of much undeveloped land to habitation and mixed agricultural production? Does village permaculture lead to low density sprawl?
A major part of the argument for village based permaculture is that the combination of a big reduction in food transportation costs and more ecologically sensitive agricultural methods means that village permaculture is more conserving and less polluting than our present system. I have the impression that the assessment of net environmental cost of different systems is complex and in many cases uncertain. The present system in industrialized countries is highly specialized. Large areas are planted in one crop, or in the production of one kind of farm animal. Isn’t this specialization efficient? If so, might the gain in efficiency in production balance the environmental cost of transportation?
I understand that there is also the argument that permaculture conserves the soil and other land based resources. But is it not possible to go some distance toward a more soil and water conserving agriculture without giving up on large scale specialized production? It seems to me that is also an important goal because large cities dependent on distant food production are going to be with us for a long time (if there is a long time).
I recognize that village permaculture has appealing values quite aside from its possible role in moving the planet toward a sustainable way of living. What I am questioning is its potential for increasing the chances of the survival of a planet with, say, 10 billion people on it.
I think that what you and Jack are doing is really admirable. You have the courage of your convictions, a rare and wonderful thing. I can see that the enterprise is totally engaging and exciting. I trust that you will take my questions as an attempt to understand, not to undermine.
With all best wishes, Herb

Our responses:

Dear Herb,
You are the very model of a modern inquiring mind; you asked great questions - thanks.

I'll have a go at answering your questions and send my effort to Jack and others for more comments. Here's my best for now:

You wonder if current agricultural practices, often referred to as 'industrial agriculture' (see second photo above), may be the most efficient way of producing food for Earth's population now, and in the future as we increase to the projected 10 billion. You recognize the fossil fuel emissions involved in the global network of food transportation, but ask if this might be balanced by the efficiency of the process. You wonder if industrial agriculture could be modified to improve soil and water conservation.
You ask if reruralization may incur the array of ecological problems of suburban sprawl.

Current agricultural practices are not sustainable. They contribute a very substantial proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. They do this through the use of agricultural machinery, through the heavy application of fertilizers necessitated by depletion of soil nutrients, the application of herbicides and pesticides necessitated by monoculture practices, and by the huge amount of oil-fuelled transport the system involves.. In addition, heavy tillage of soil releases carbon to the atmosphere. (No-till systems sequester it.) We must find ways to grow food that restore the carbon-sequestering property of soil, the fertility of soil, that do not contribute to gg emissions and that are minimally dependent on oil. These things must be done for two reasons - to mitigate global warming in the long run and to avoid potentially grave effects of peak oil in the short run.

It is not surprising that we experience the present system as efficient; global food prices have been steadily decreasing, at least since after WWII, and until 2005. (Now they are increasing, because of the impact of global warming on agriculture, the steady rise in the price of oil and because food, and food-producing land is being used to produce ethanol. This increase is haing serious effects on some populations.) Oil-fuelled farm machinery has replaced human labour, reducing production costs and depopulating farmland. Oil-based inputs to agriculture have replaced the need to take care of soil. This 'efficiency' in producing food is theft from those who come after us, and must deal with global warming and depleted soil. A related problem is the reduction of genetic diversity caused by industrial agriculture, with loss of many species and variants of such things as potatoes and rice, reducing resilience conferred by diversity.

Jack: One way of understanding the inefficiencies ( and thus unsustainability) of current agricultural industrial practices is to look at the net energy return of the food produced. I don’t have the reference handy, but the calculations show that for every calorie produced by these methods, it takes at least 10 – 15 calories of inputs. This is the very definition of unsustainability – take away the high energy inputs and you can no longer produce the outputs. We are about to lose the inputs with peak oil and peak natural gas. We are also fouling the water required, and the levels of phosphorus are declining. The pulse in food production (and population) created by the introduction of fossil fuels into agriculture over the last century and a half cannot be repeated ( at least I know of no reasonable hypothesis of how it can).

Another perspective on industrial agriculture has to do with the introduction of genetically modified organism – eg to grow in saline soil (created by poor irrigation practices), and other high tech solutions. These approaches which interfere with the natural flow of ecosystems and their slow evolution will undoubtedly have unintended consequences we cannot begin to appreciate ( note the unintended consequences of both CFCs for refrigeration and the extensive use of fossil fuels). Nature is the way nature is because it is the most efficient way of creating biomass and protecting living organisms. I suggest that as a species we are much better off trying to understand the complexities involved and working with these natural processes rather than attempting to “improve” them for our short term benefit.

I have my doubts that the human population will ever reach 10 billion because of the vulnerability of our food system. But I also believe that more people will receive adequate nourishment if industrial agriculture ( and a host of other energy intensive practices that are unsustainable and essentially unhealthy for people and the planet eg mining, warfare, etc) are abandoned and we base our food system on local production with permaculture and related food production practices.

Just a few days ago we had a small workshop here at Te Mara to plan for food production on the land here and for the village. The first stage will be to prepare a little more than 1 Ha of land for crop rotation. With two full time people and two part time, we expect to be able to feed about 20 people from this parcel – with a surplus. We will use a combination of permaculture and French intensive gardening. The process grows soil as well as crops, insuring the sustainability of the practice. We will use some fossil fuels to begin preparing the land ( and we will try to measure these inputs so we can establish a baseline and reduce it in the future) as a temporary measure. The objective is to move quickly to a fossil fuel free system and we believe this can be done in just a few years.

Permaculture (see first hoto above) and other organic agricultural practices counter these problems. I understand they can restore depleted soil, minimize external inputs, and minimize tillage. I also understand that the food production per hectare is greater in total than in monoculture, the product comprising many diverse foods rather than one. The implication of this is that a change to this for of agriculture would have a better chance of feeding human populations than would industrial monocultureagriculture. Organic practices involve small scale monocultures, are strong on nurturing soil, and are labour intensive. Permaculture practices, I'm told, after achievement of a mature garden, involve rather little labour input, mostly focussing on perennial plants. But the permaculturist must live in their garden to observe and make adjustments.

It would seem possible to apply such agricultural practices to urban centres up to a certain size. This happened successfully in Cuba after their sudden loss of Soviet oil in the 1990s. They implemented multiple adaptations,including input from Australian permaculturists, intensive urban gardening, use of draft animals for agricultural energy input and a science-based approach. I understand that Havana was able to supply 80% of its food from within a 5-10 km radius of the city centre, and smaller towns were able to grow 100%. I imagine this meant people moving out of the city into the near countryside.

Jack: see above. I would also add that I think cities will and must shrink in population. Sustainable agricultural practices will require more people on the land and involved in food production. Reruralization is needed. See the writing of Richard Register for the thinking of an architect who has been looking at these issues for some time, and who has useful ideas about how to transform cities into a system of villages.

Keep in mind that cities also now contain a lot of people who are essentially unproductive from the perspective of meeting basic human needs - think of people in the financial services, insurance, advertising, PR, even the food and trucking industries, etc. Many of these jobs could go without too many people really missing the services provided (aside from those whose jobs might be lost). A return to localization of the economy, especially regarding basic services ( food, shelter, education, health care, culture, etc) will create a much more efficient system and allow many more people to survive.

Does this mean worse urban sprawl?
Not in the form of settlement we're working on. The problem with urban sprawl is that water, sewage and electricity and roads must be supplied over a huge area of urban infrastructure at great expense, and then people must travel long distances to work and education. Also there is likely no meaningful community in their settlement area, and certainly little economic interdependence. In the form of settlement we are developing, water, sewage and energy will be taken care of in the village, food will be grown in the village area, and there will be a strong effort to have as many jobs as possible based in the village. Some of these may depend on internet (while this technology is available), and it is recognized that some people will need to work in the nearby town or city. Transport will be shared. Houses are to be built on the less productive land, usually rather steep slopes.

Jack: Much of current “development” takes place on green fields ie agricultural land ( this is one of the big issues about the expansion of an industrial park around the Hamilton airport). It takes productive farm land out of production and transforms it to a use that requires ever more energy and material inputs. No matter how “efficient” this process becomes, it is inherently unsustainable on the scale it is now occurring (and perhaps at any scale).

Several of your questions talk about improved efficiencies. I have two comments: Jevon’s Paradox needs to be considered – whenever there is an increase in efficiency there is also an increase in total material throughput – when things are more efficient we use more of them. Secondly, being efficient at the wrong thing cannot be sustainable. We have become increasingly efficient at creating unsustainable practices and are approaching “peak everything” ( a recent book by Richard Heinberg – recommended). A basic principle of ecological economics is – frugality first ( set limits to ensure we stay within the capacities of natural systems to regenerate) and then be concerned with doing that efficiently.

One of the things that really excites me about the project we are doing is that we are taking marginal land (only good for grazing sheep at best – which NZ has too many of anyway) and turning it into productive land thru permaculture, making it visually attractive (again via permaculture), and providing basic services for people (water, waste water management, energy, food) from the land itself. We will require almost nothing from the district council in terms of services ( in fact, I can think of none). Even the materials for the homes will largely come from materials on the land itself. I am hoping we can do a materials and energy audit of both the construction and operating phases to learn more about what we are actually doing and to learn how this can be improved.

Can this form of settlement pattern take care of the needs of 10 billion people? I don't know and I have doubts that it can, despite the claims of higher productivity in Permaculture. While I have seen predictions that the present form of agriculture can feed 10 billion, these projections take into account none of the problems of GHG emissions and peak oil. The recent notes on rising food prices and diminishing grain reserves suggest that we are running into problems of food supply (rather than only food distribution) right now. I am very interested in understanding more about how many humans can live sustainably on the Earth.

Jack: Again, see my comments above. When I hear questions like this, the I = P X A X T formula comes to mind. We cannot separate the population (P) question from consumption ( A for Affluence) and technology ( T). Clearly, the total impact we have on ecosystems that support and maintain us ( and everyone living thing) is a complex function of P, A and T. We tend to focus on improving T ( because we have some much excess energy with fossil fuels),and generally avoid looking at A and P. But there are three parameters we have to work with, and if we are going to be losing the unrepeatable energy services of fossil fuels( which has made the incredible T we have possible) then we had best learn to deal with both the A and the P. The real goal is reducing our I ( impact on ecosystems), and we will need to radically alter all three parameters – making technologies more efficient and focused on doing the basic tasks, learn to live more frugally ( which is totally consistent with high levels of both human satisfaction and well being – objectively measured), and reduce our population. Ultimately, it is the I ( for Impact) that counts.

Well, dear Herb, that's it for me now.Warmest wishes to you and Adair,
Further comments: I read the following account the other day: When the massive exodus of Tibetans flowed into India, they were given land in various parts of India and began agriculture. This was in the hey-day of the green revolution and the adopted its methods. Much later it was realized that the soil had become sterile, devoid of all the living matter that makes up healthy soil, due to these methods. the dalai Lama pointed out that the infrastructure of all Tibetan settlements must be nonviolent. Agriculture changed to organic methods and productivity improved. (Chris Turner. The Geography of Hope, 2007 )

Alternative Currency
One friend, commenting on previous blogs, noted that nothing has been said about a complementary local money system (like the Toronto dollar). I had been imagining that this would be worked out at a later stage. However, some more recent reading, stimulated by Joy Kogawa who was instrumental in the Toronto Dollar system, suggests to me that sooner rather than later should be considered. I was very happy to find that our ecologist, Helle Janssen, has past experience in establishing alternatie currencies. I'm sure to return to this topic.
Warmest wishes to the enduring souls who have read all of this.