Although 842 million people around the world are food insecure (malnourished, facing chronic hunger and starvation etc) there is not a problem with food production, rather the way we have chosen to distribute food is the main culprit.
In order to combat unequal food distribution, which exists for multiple reasons, new methods and techniques must be adopted to ensure that everyone can be fed. With 70% of the global population being fed by small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women, it would be beneficial to ensure that these farmers have access to the resources they need so that they can not only produce a dependable crop, but do so with as little environmental impact as possible.
A Brief Agricultural History
Humans have lived in communities united by culture for at least the last million years. Culture can refer to shared language, art, values, beliefs, and food systems, among other things. The 5 major food systems that have been used throughout this time are: foraging, horticultural, agricultural, pastoral and industrial. As cultures began to settle and domesticate both plants and animals, agriculture began to grow in popularity because it allowed people to have a surplus of food, for the first time ever, which allowed them to devote more time to developing other aspects of their culture.
Soon a pattern of growing population followed by an increase in production and surplus took root. However, to regulate this surplus of food systems were created to control who had access to the food; usually those that had control had power over the entire civilization. Within time consumption grew and conquest of other civilizations naturally followed as competition for food and resources to grow food increased. This same pattern is found today as more and more people are becoming dependent on large-scale farms to supply them with food and resources are being stolen from developing countries.
It has gotten to a point where there is a visible toll being taken on the earth and its inhabitants. In order to stop and reverse this trend of power and control, there needs to be a shift away from claims that humans have dominion over nature and instead embrace a paradigm that states humans are a part of nature (Alex Vincent, personal communication).
A Paradigm Shift to Return to Part of Nature
Instead of allowing industrial agriculture to continue to expand in the United States and threaten to spread to the developing world, permaculture should be implemented. Permaculture is a design science for sustainable human development. It works by identifying patterns and systems in nature and replicating them in not only how we choose to grow our food, but also live our lives.
There are three core ethics of permaculture: earth care, people care and fair share. Earth care states that all life systems should be able to continue and multiply. From the largest mammal to the tiniest microbe in the soil, all creatures have their own intrinsic value. People care states that all people should have access to the resources they need for their existence. People should be able to thrive, not simply survive. Lastly, fair share states that returning surplus is essential to making sure everyone’s needs are met. By choosing to be just in the amount one person consumes, they can affect how others choose to interact with their environment. Before anything can be done in the name of permaculture, it must not contradict any of the ethics.
In addition to the ethics, there are 12 main design principles that can be applied to growing food and nourishing community.
Permaculture works because it reminds people that working with and not against nature is the best way to succeed. Instead of growing rows of crops up a hillside, which can be washed away by a rainstorm, it encourages growing on contour, as a way to slow, spread and sink rainwater).
It searches for ways to eliminate wastes by closing the loop. Instead of throwing food scraps in the garbage, starting a compost pile to break down the food into useable soil is one way to lessen our impact on the environment. Taking that soil and growing our own vegetables is even better.
Additionally, permaculture can help us ask questions about the appropriate use of technology that can be applied to multiple aspects of our lives:
- Does it conserve or save energy?
- Does it save resources in its production?
- Is it efficient- input versus yield?
- What are the costs and benefits over its lifespan?
- Is it durable or repairable?
- Is it nonpolluting in its construction?
- Does it use local sources?
- Does it suit local conditions; is it right for this environment?
- Is the technology necessary; is it really needed?
These questions can help us whether we are deciding to build a house or plant a garden (Warren Brush, personal communication).
Lastly, in replicating nature, permaculture suggests that humans do better within the context of a community. By building, strengthening and maintaining relationships with people around us we are able to infuse stability and resilience into our communities.
This interdependence will be vital as we face continual economic crises due to climate change.
Critiques of Permaculture
One of the main critiques of permaculture is the lack of research to back up the claims it makes. This is true to an extent, because there have been several success stories, like the implementation of a food forest in Jordan. However, there is definitely a lack of research done on the productivity of permaculture because of the amount of power and control agribusiness has in the United States. Since industrial agriculture is so profitable, there are few reasons for people to invest in other methods of growing food. Perhaps though, with the reality of climate change slowly setting in, more businesses will invest in the research necessary to bring permaculture into the conversation.
Additionally, permaculture values indigenous methods of farming and is based on changing the way we design our fields and lives so that they better reflect nature. This way of thinking is often devalued in our globalized, capitalist, American society.
Another critique of permaculture is that in reorienting our lives to reflect a set of ethics that value all life on this planet we would have to radically change the way we interact with the economy. Currently a lot of policies are created to ensure that the economy remains strong, yet people are still hungry. It seems that a reminder is needed that the economy was made to serve people; people were not made to serve the economy.
When it comes to permaculture, the problem is the solution. Instead of seeing a drawback as a problem and then implementing an energy intensive solution to fix it, we should learn to view it as a useful resource to be harvested. For example, if there is an overabundance of zucchini in your garden you could bake some into zucchini bread and share them with your neighbor. In doing so you not only find a use for your extra zucchini but you also gain a chance to build community.
“What made traditional economies so radically different and so very fundamentally dangerous to Western economies were the traditional principles of prosperity of Creation versus scarcity of resources, of sharing and distribution versus accumulation and greed, of kinship usage rights versus individual exclusive ownership rights, and of sustainability versus growth.” -Rebecca Adamson, American Cherokee businessperson and advocate.