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The problem with permaculture...  RSS feed

 
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Rufus pretty much summed up the issue I'm grappling with. So permaculture aims to meet our needs sustainably, but half the human population relies on bulk calories delivered to the supermarket. So what can be sustained using PC is a much smaller population and the transition is a nightmare for humans and wildlife.

But where I feel there is a gap between theory and action is in how much of the Earth's resources do we appropriate for ourselves in permaculture. Globally there's 0.2 hectares per person of arable land (that's 0.5 acre). If we appropriate more land than that, or occupy that land and are inefficient in converting incoming energy into food energy, then there is less to go around, either for nature or other humans. If we have larger properties and set aside anything in excess of 0.2ha/person for nature then that's a value choice, that we're valuing nature over people. If we appropriate more for our own use, similarly, that's valuing ourselves over nature and other people.

Bill Mollison characterises permaculture as using "the inherent qualities of plants and animals combined with the natural characteristics of landscapes and structures to produce a life-supporting system for city and country, using the smallest practical area"

This last part often seems lacking in practice. This attitude probably originates here in Australia where people tend to have large tracts of land and you often can't subdivide below, say, 40ha. And the last state to allow land-sharing has just stopped allowing it.

It does seem inherent in the intersection of the three ethics that we'll be concerned about the impacts of our choices on others and on nature, but this doesn't necessarily translate into concern about the off-site implications of our land-use efficiency in terms of energy productivity (and nature productivity - if there is such a thing!).
 
master pollinator
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I don't think you can blame the attitude on Australia, it is a common attitude here in North America where there are still large tracts of land available for purchase.


Perhaps we can encourage more interest in permaculture Zone 5 among land owners.  Here's a thread about it:  http://www.permies.com/t/56225/permaculture-design/Mollison-Permaculture-Zones-happened-Zone


I'm actually not convinced that  what can be sustained using permaculture is a much smaller population and the transition is a nightmare for humans and wildlife.   I don't think the transition need be a nightmare.  I think we need to remember that the majority of bulk calories grown by the US, for example, are grown to feed cars and cows, not people.  So I think the area of land needed to feed people is actually much smaller than the current amount of land in use by agriculture.

Regarding population, it is a solvable problem in a permaculture world - which is what we're talking about, I think - transitioning to a permaculture world?  In a permaculture world women would be full human beings with control of their own reproduction.  Combined with permaculture ethics and principles, this would solve the population problem relatively quickly, in my opinion.  
 
gardener
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It is a common misconception that modern farming is more efficient with regard to space. In fact modern mechanized farming is more efficient with regard to labour, but produces much less food per given unit of area than small scale diverse farming does. This is well established in studies of many different places (including Ladakh where a common discourse is something like "scratching out a hardscrabble living from the unproductive land in the harsh climate, but in fact the yields per hectare were studied by an English team and were considerably higher than any farming in Britain).
 
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Rowan,
You also have to think about over time.  Over time, commercial agriculture depletes the top soil, kills the micorrhizae, depletes pollinators and other wildlife, which studies have shown decrease stress and depression among humans. They also decrease nutrition while increasing obesity, diabetes,cancer and heart disease.   Food forests and sustainable permaculture build the top soil, build the micorrhizae, pollinators, wildlife, decrease stress and depression, and decrease chronic diseases of humans.  Which is more efficient in the long run?
JohN S
PDX OR
 
pollinator
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Rebecca Norman wrote:It is a common misconception that modern farming is more efficient with regard to space. In fact modern mechanized farming is more efficient with regard to labour, but produces much less food per given unit of area than small scale diverse farming does. This is well established in studies of many different places (including Ladakh where a common discourse is something like "scratching out a hardscrabble living from the unproductive land in the harsh climate, but in fact the yields per hectare were studied by an English team and were considerably higher than any farming in Britain).



Even if it's true that yields are higher with permaculture (and I'm not certain it is), I think one of the biggest problems is that there is no efficient way to harvest those yields.  Contrast harvesting a 100 acre mono-crop yield with harvesting a 100 acre food forest (if there were such a thing).  Granted it can only be done with heavy machinery, but the fact remains that the most productive food forest in the world can't be harvested nearly as efficiently as a modern farm.  I would think that a 50 acre modern farm can be harvested much more easily than a 2 acre food forest.  That is one reason that, in my mind, permaculture is more of an individual endeavor, best used for feeding a family or small group.
 
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Todd Parr wrote:

Rebecca Norman wrote:It is a common misconception that modern farming is more efficient with regard to space. In fact modern mechanized farming is more efficient with regard to labour, but produces much less food per given unit of area than small scale diverse farming does. This is well established in studies of many different places (including Ladakh where a common discourse is something like "scratching out a hardscrabble living from the unproductive land in the harsh climate, but in fact the yields per hectare were studied by an English team and were considerably higher than any farming in Britain).



Even if it's true that yields are higher with permaculture (and I'm not certain it is), I think one of the biggest problems is that there is no efficient way to harvest those yields.  Contrast harvesting a 100 acre mono-crop yield with harvesting a 100 acre food forest (if there were such a thing).  Granted it can only be done with heavy machinery, but the fact remains that the most productive food forest in the world can't be harvested nearly as efficiently as a modern farm.  I would think that a 50 acre modern farm can be harvested much more easily than a 2 acre food forest.  That is one reason that, in my mind, permaculture is more of an individual endeavor, best used for feeding a family or small group.


50 acre modern farm is a bit of a misnomer. Your average modern farmer usually makes less than 200$ per acre [this may be excluding subsidies, I don't know] of profit per harvest. 50 acres of modern farm is a tiny drop in the bucket of a livelihood.
 
Todd Parr
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Kyrt Ryder wrote:
50 acre modern farm is a bit of a misnomer. Your average modern farmer usually makes less than 200$ per acre [this may be excluding subsidies, I don't know] of profit per harvest. 50 acres of modern farm is a tiny drop in the bucket of a livelihood.



That was simply an example.  50 acres OF a modern farm if you prefer.  Point being, it is far, far more efficient to harvest from a modern farm than from something like a food forest, or a field with many diverse crops growing in it.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Todd Parr wrote: it is far, far more efficient to harvest from a modern farm than from something like a food forest, or a field with many diverse crops growing in it.



Only more labor efficient, as mentioned above, not more calorie efficient.  Michael Pollan claims it takes 10 calories of energy to grow one calorie of modern food. The labor efficiency of modern farming is what has enabled our society to remove so many people from the land and send them to the cities.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/10-calories-in-1-calorie-out-the-energy-we-spend-on-food/
 
Todd Parr
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Tyler Ludens wrote:

Todd Parr wrote: it is far, far more efficient to harvest from a modern farm than from something like a food forest, or a field with many diverse crops growing in it.



Only more labor efficient, as mentioned above, not more calorie efficient.  Michael Pollan claims it takes 10 calories of energy to grow one calorie of modern food. The labor efficiency of modern farming is what has enabled our society to remove so many people from the land and send them to the cities.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/10-calories-in-1-calorie-out-the-energy-we-spend-on-food/



I don't doubt that is true, I just don't know how to make harvesting a food forest efficient enough to make it scale upwards and feed many people.  A you-pick-em type situation is the best idea I can come up with, short of just accepting that food forests and the like should be family-sized endeavors.  Personally, I have no problem with that idea, and it is what I am trying to accomplish.
 
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Aaaah!  Will this discussion never end?


There are inherent difficulties trying to do straight across comparisons between "efficiency of harvesting" or any other single aspect comparison such as tons per acre.  I sometimes feel like a broken record when I repeat that results from "one variable research" do not necessarily provide information applicable to real life situations.  

So they can harvest the conventional ag crops "more efficiently", but what is the quality of the crop being harvested?  What will the crop be used for?  What will be the health of the organisms that consume it?  What inputs are being factored in, such as the cost to society of subsidies, of medical care, of supplements because those crops are not as nutrient dense?  What are the annualized costs of depletion of soil, of erosion?  Are they being counted when we look at the cost of getting a conventionally raised crop out of the field?

Growing food in the USA has been reduced to tons per acre.  Supposing those tons are not to be used for food, supposing the costs do not include the cost of subsidies to grow those tons of corn to be made into ethanol.  I can't quote numbers on this but I think a diligent researcher, and searcher of numbers will find that it takes more petroleum inputs to produce the ethanol from corn than is yielded in that ethanol.

The agri business system currently prevalent in the USA developed to fit a set of needs and values that have proven not to be supportive of the health of the environment or the human community.  If we extract one consideration such as "efficiency of harvesting" and compare it to harvesting crops from unsubsibdized systems that are trying to address the observed and measurable short comings of the existing system, it does not provide information pertinent to the development of a better system.  In this case and as I use it, better means less polluting, more supporting of healthy soil, producing more nutrient dense food which supports greater health and wellbeing in the population that consumes it.  Better means allowing greater diversity of insects birds small mammals and soil micro organisms, which in turn support plants more able to resist pathogens.

The value of healthy soil is that it produces healthier food, lessens flooding, lessens drought, recharges the water table, retains the topsoil, decreases erosion, dampens the problems of global warming, I'm sure there are other effects of healthy soil I'm not able to think of right now.  Cover crop after cash crop increases next year's harvest, and can add value in bringing cattle or other herbivores in to eat the cover crop and the residues from the cash crop.  Are those being factored?

If we calculate the costs of food production, and it is corn soy wheat grown and harvested by chem agri systems, then is it not also legitimate to include the costs to society to provide medical care for conditions directly caused by the food like substances that industrial processes transform those crops into?  And lets  add in the nutrient dense considerations.  Eating more of those efficiently harvested chemically grown tomatoes to get the same amount of lutein in tomatoes grown in the live soils of sustainable practices fields surely needs to be factored in as well.

Elaine Ingham has brought fertility to large tracts of land which can then be used to grow tomatoes or other market vegetables.  Harvesting those nutrient dense vegetables could be done with the same efficient machines utilized by conventional ag vegetable growers.

As I understand it, Mark Shepard for one, is developing permaculture style growing systems that can be harvested by machine. The example I remember is hazel nuts harvested by a modified mechanical blueberry picker.  Those hazel nuts would not be grown as monoculture, but utilizing  ag forestry or silvopasture practices. He is doing this because his neighbors are good people trapped by the old ways.  I heard him say he is trying to create viable systems for people who have been practicing broad acre large scale agriculture, because they are good people who need other options. His work has increased yields per acre, and improved the soil, increased numbers of other organisms per acre. He has few inputs, if any.  His profits increase as his soil improves.

The costs of conventional agriculture are monumental, IMO, when one considers the total cost of the perpetuation of those systems, and it seems short sighted indeed to look at single variables such as "efficiency of harvesting".


 
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This thread seems to be going round in circles and encouraging us all to focus on the problems rather than the solutions.

I'm going to lock it now to try get the focus back to positive things we can do to make the world a better place.
 
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