Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

food forest

Small food forest

(This is the second of two posts about dramatic changes that are occurring in food production and marketing, as well as consumer food choices.  Part II addresses the application of design technology to water and soil management, which is revolutionizing the movement towards local food production.)

Applying Design Technology to Farming

Most food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

To get some idea what a food forest looks like, check out this video by Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton:

Attention City Dwellers

Lawton is also a big fan of small space urban permaculture because it’s the most productive in terms of yield per square foot. The following is a video by one of his students about designing a permaculture food growing system on your balcony or terrace:

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

  1. ” For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.”

    I laughed at this and not because it couldn’t happen, but because it could. Who knows? I want to thank you for continuing to educate us because even though I’m originally from farm country, I was going to use the old techniques that we used back in my farming days, that of plowing straight lines. I’ve learned quite a few things and I have been taking notes. So, again, thank you So much for helping out those of us who are attempting to return to our ‘grow our own produce’ roots. Greatly appreciated, Dr. Bramhall!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.