Monday, October 1, 2012

Current and Future State of Agriculture

Big Agro versus Small Polyfarms

The food paradigm of the united states (and generally the 1st world countries) is this;
Produce as much food at as little a cost as possible.

"What could be wrong with that?" said one farmer in Food Inc (If you haven't seen Food Inc, just watch it - it covers the paradigms).

The problems are numerous, and for one main reason; reductive logic. If you'd like to see the problems, you can look at the bottom of my previous post:

**Note: I am not whipping these "problems" out of my ass, these are done by hard scientific studies across the globe with very good technique and control (its sound science!), so please, trust me, but you can do your own research. If you'd like sources I'd be glad to give them to you!

So - you have to ask yourself - is big Agro (mass energy, water, fertilizer, pesticide & herbicide consumption) really the only option we have? Yes. I mean.. NO! Absolutely not.

When the big white man with his fire water (always cracks me up) came and settled on this great nation, there was a pervasive farming technique seen by the Natives here. They called it the "The Three Sisters" which represented Corn, Beans, and Squash (or pumpkins - the weirdos).

This trifecta of flavor was actually incredibly well structured for a generally unscientific culture. The Native Americans had a way of perfecting things, food paradigms included! These are some general principles of the Three Sisters, but they can be applied to many combinations of plants:

  • The corn allowed the vines to grow vertical, allowing more sun to the leaves.
  • The beans gave nitrogen to the soil (one of the biggest problems in agriculture now is low nitrogen levels)
  • The squash's large leaves gave ground cover, resulting in minimal evaporation of water from the soil.

The Three Sisters fit in with the new concept (or new label) of Permaculture; that is, taking natural systems of the world and using them for agricultural purposes. This principle of using multiple plants in synergistic ways is called Polyculture, and is one of the 12 principles of Permaculture. As per Wikipedia the 12 different principles are:

  1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.
Some principles are probably more useful than others, but when it comes down to it; use as little as possible, learn as much from the natural biosystems as possible, and use many plants - avoid monocultures.

The benefits are incredible:
Not only does the yield increase (due to more plant per acre) but also the diet is much better. In polyculture, a complete diet can be easily done in one acre, while triple the acreage is needed for monoculture (if you want the same yields of each plant).

Less fertilizers (if any) due to the fact that legumes (beans in the Three Sisters example) replenish nitrogen into the soil, while the corn and squash take it up.

Less water use (if any) due to the fact of green ground cover, shading the bare ground from the sun, resulting in less evaporation. Techniques in permaculture also call for use of extensive rainwater - there are many ways of doing this - rain barrels and fog-nets to name the most common. Other techniques take advantage of drip-irrigation, which places tubes (organic or not) below the grounds surface with small holes, supplying a continuous, yet low volume of water directly to the plants roots.

No pesticides, herbicides or fungicides needed! Plants produce their own defense mechanisms, and some plants are more hardy against biotic stress than others. A study done in China showed that planting multiple species of rice (instead of one) produced yield increases up to 80%. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that multiple species are less prone to being wiped out by the same disease or bug. "The strongest survive!" But how can the strongest species compete if you only plant one? Not only that, but some plants ward off small animals and insects due to their aromatic compounds they let off. Raccoons, deer, and other animals like rabbits can easily be tricked to stay out of farms or gardens by planting specific types of aromatic plants.

There are plenty of farmers out there that can produce enough food for an entire season in an acre or less of land using permaculture techniques. In 1/4th acreage of farmed land enough food can be made to feed a small family. If you add in vertical space of housing and other structures, even more. The 1/4th land would occupy the family nearly full time, and includes chickens.

One full acre would be able to easily support a family at a half time job, since the more sparse, the more efficient one can be in man hours, however, per land area, you can always increase efficiency!

Another problem is the plants we have chosen to monocrop. From
"In the tropics the Mayan Bread Nut produces a nut that is on par nutritionally to corn, It has seven times or so the production per acre. Only needs to be planted once. The nuts will store for five years as a food if just hung up in sacks in the rafters of houses. A family can collect a years’ worth in about 8 hours of work and it still can be used as an over story crop in a food forest. "

So can we feed the growing population of the world with permaculture? Yes, but there would be needed a dramatic shift in our food paradigm;
1. More people would need to produce for themselves. A small permaculture plot (your back yard) can easily be maintained over a small portion of a weekends work. If you have surplus, either give away or learn to can and store.

2. Farmer's wages would need to increase. Right now, most of the people who pick the produce from American farms are immigrants working under minimum wage. Side note: this is legal by a very nasty act where Big Agro recruiters literally go to Mexico, say "Hey we'll give you a job in A-M-E-R-I-C-A, you just need to sign this paper." Little do the people know they must live in the farm's own project housing, must pay the designated rent, and cannot leave until their contract is up! Unfortunately, as well, the only food available to the recruits is usually Fast-food chains nearby, since the farms are very far from good supermarkets.

3. Less waste would needed to be produced. It has been hypothesized (not sure if proven) that there is enough food in the United States alone to feed the entire world, however, there is not enough money to buy it as well as an incredibly high amount of waste in restaurants, packaging, and shipping of food.

4. Food would become more expensive. Don't like it? Go to #1.

And there you have it. I will update this when I see fit. Please feel free to email or comment.

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