Following our banana article, let’s keep the lights on sustainable food production.
The past sixty years have seen a huge growth in agricultural yields on large parts of the planet. The issue is, this modern revolution in agriculture only went so far thanks to an extensive use of all kind of chemical inputs like pesticides and fertilisers. Huge arable areas have been taken over for cultivation of single crops or breeds (monoculture) which has led to the disappearance of biodiversity and degradation of the soil itself to alarming levels. The impacts on human health of monoculture are extensive; it has been linked to the propagation of all kind of diseases, including cancers, in populations, and the spread of antibiotic resistance due to overuse in livestock farming.
The term ’permaculture’ comes from the concept of ‘permanent agriculture’. It consists of an ensemble of cultivation techniques inspired from the interactions happening in natural ecosystems. Its integration into the local ecosystem results in minimizing the environmental impact of growing crops. It is not a reserved to professionals; its principles can be applied to anyone, anywhere, such as in window boxes, suburban garden, conservation areas, schools or farms…
Technically speaking, the chemical and biological interactions needed for satisfying yields are being generated by smartly arranging complementary plants. Plants actually buddy with each other, improving their mutual resilience and providing each other with nutrients! Exposure of the ground to the elements is avoided by ensuring crop cover year-round, even if it means covering it with straw. Different canopy levels are exploited to make the best use of land space and enable different species to interact with each other.
Permaculture evolved into a broader philosophy of reuniting with the land and natural things. It goes hand in hand with “agroecology”, a concept promoted by French agronomist Pierre Rabhi. Communities living by these principles are also called ecovillages. Agroecology aims to learn from traditional techniques, understand what local resources are available, promote ecologic and economic diversity to understand agriculture within a broader natural and social environment, and make produce accessible and affordable to all.
So… is it better than organic?
If you’re not especially sensitive to the philosophical background of permaculture, why not…just focusing on buying organic food? Well, there is one primary reason for that: organic farming is greener than conventional agriculture, but it still bears an environmental impact. Organic crops can be just as demanding in water and soil supplies, and the use of fertilizers is permitted if they are organically produced. Monoculture can still sport the organic label. The principle of permaculture is more holistic: to keep arable lands healthy and productive, and the soil nurtured and resilient.
Organic labelling alone is not the panacea to sustainable food production, as the road to sustainable agriculture is much more complex. The quality of ingredients depends on how exactly they are produced, and permaculture currently is the most environmentally-friendly option to get tasty meals.
If you think all this sounds great, you might be wondering how to support it, and identify permaculture-grown fruit and veg in the shops. However, there’s no labelling system currently in place to identify produce grown using this principle. There are a couple of ways you can get around this:
· Permaculture is not fundamentally complex; you can do it on your balcony and complement food supplies for cheap, healthy and tastier food.
· If you live in an urban area without a chance to grow your own, you can talk to producers and ask about their production techniques, in local organic shops or farmers markets.
If you still had some doubts…
· Real-world experiments showed that permaculture can lead to similar, and even better yields, so it doesn’t imply more hunger in the world!