A farm for the future

Agriculture & Food, Being Human, Crime & Security, Money, Sustainability, Systems thinking

I finally got around to watching A Farm for the Future (available on Google Video) a few nights ago, and found it to be a great introduction to the concepts of permaculture.

Key things to realise (some not from the programme):

  1. Current methods of farming will not continue to feed you during your lifetime.
  2. We (and I mean all of us, including YOU, reading this right now) are running out of oil.
  3. Before it runs out it will get much more expensive.
  4. Oil is the most expensive component of current methods of food production.
  5. Your food is going to get much more expensive.
  6. We import about 40% of our food (in the UK)
  7. As food gets more expensive, other countries are going to stop exporting it so they can feed their own populations.
  8. Oil-fuelled production food production is only 10% efficient in energy, and about 20% efficient in land use.
  9. We could – if we choose to – produce up to 50 times more food from the same land. (Ok that’s a touch unrealistic since there are bound to be inefficiencies, but let’s be conservative and say just 5 times as much. It still makes sense, right?)
  10. We haven’t even got touched on the nutritional or lifestyle benefits yet. I’ll leave that to other posts, but suffice to say you could live a healthier, happier, longer life.

Here are my notes from the programme itself:

  • It was in 1981 that we crossed the “using more than we’re finding” threshold with oil.
  • “It’s not just that current lifestyle are unethical – they’re unsustainable”.
  • 10 calories of fossil fuel are required for 1 calorie of food (global average).
  • GM crops are also dependent on fossil fuels, even though they may use less – ergo they are not a long term answer.
  • A litre of oil is the energy equivalent of 1 person working for a week; the oil we use equates to 22bn (unfed) slaves (c.3x world population).
  • There are 150,000 farmers in the Uk, with an average age of 60.
  • Normally cattle are taken off fields in the winter since they turn pasture into mud. But with a blend of tough/soft, deep/shall rooted (etc.) grasses you can leave the cattle there year round. Thus no hay production required, or unused land area. It took 60 years for one chap to perfect that, in one area.
  • Don’t dig. It destroys the life in the top 6″ of soil which plants thrive on. (See other posts on permaculture, too.)
  • Don’t look after plants, cultivate soil.
  • 95% of all food is dependent on synthetic fertiliser.
  • Permaculture: conscious design of a better system (Wikipedia link).
  • Khaki Campbell ducks eat lots of slugs and lay lots of eggs.
  • Willow, lime, and ash leaves / branches are good fodder crops for animals.
  • In a well considered permaculture plot, 12 man-days maintenance and 40 man-days of harvest will feed about 10 people per acre.
  • Nuts are more efficient to grow than cereal crops. Sweet chestnuts can yield 2 tons per acre (about 60% that of wheat, with much less effort).
  • During WWII, 40% of food came from small domestic production.

I suppose the question is “Neat. Is there any large scale permaculture so that we can feed lots of people? All the ones, like me, maybe in the cities, who don’t garden?”

Large scale production permaculture is probably going on somewhere (I understand that Pittsburgh Permaculture showcases examples), but to a certain extent it’s a bit of an antithesis to the small, intensive, and hyper-local principles. However the cities still need to be fed so.. a few answers:

  1. The goal is community efficiency not self-sufficiency
  2. It can be a great business opportunity, especially if more people know about why it’s being done.
  3. It’s not an industrial farm, so don’t expect it to behave like one. If the old models aren’t working, don’t expect to see permaculture behaving in the same way. (That said there are some neat multi-storey urban farms.)

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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