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Have you ever thought about the ecological stresses associated with modern agriculture? To put it simply, it all starts with our food supply. Specifically, let’s talk about my food supply! I spent three hours last Sunday at Seattle’s largest farmer collective, the year-round Ballard Farmers Market. I wanted to know, in such a progressive city how many of the farms were organic? How many practiced no-till permaculture techniques? The answer to the first question is a full 23% of the 109 farms in attendance. The latter was harder to gauge without a protracted conversation, and I’ve left this to a later date in the not-too distant future.
In the three hours that I spent at the market, I chatted with street musicians and vendors—some of whom make the weekly journey via a 2-hour ferry ride from Port Angeles at the opposite end of the Puget Sound. I sipped a tonic iced coffee infused with an herbalicious plume of lavender farmed one county to the north. And when the caffeine hit my neurons, I began an inquiry into the relationship that our food supply has with its overbearing spouse, climate change.
My inquiry led me to an examination of modern techniques in permaculture both here and abroad. Permaculture is an ethical design science that seeks to mimic nature and match the wisdom of land management as practiced by indigenous peoples throughout human history. It also incorporates concepts of self-regulating perennial plant systems, prolonged and thoughtful observation, and it places an emphasis on relationships that bring about both ecologically sound and economically prosperous human communities. While its scope expands beyond merely growing food, in a purely agricultural sense these principles have been long-employed from small suburban gardens to 5000-acre farms.
Why should we be concerned with agriculture? The Paris Agreement (as well as its forebear, the Kyoto Protocol) points out that one major way of addressing environmental concerns is through the control and reduction of the greenhouse gases that we put into Earth’s atmosphere. The journal Nature reported in 2012 that a full one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, and that reducing the “carbon footprint” of this ubiquitous activity is central to limiting climate change. Also, all farming activity related to growing food represents about 86% of total agricultural carbon emissions, followed by fertilizer production and refrigeration. All of these factors— farming, fertilizer, refrigeration, and transportation—can be effectively addressed by growing as much of our food as possible for strictly local consumption, using permaculture methods of farming.
Outside of growing this food on our own (which certainly isn’t practical at a large enough scale for the majority of us), we can make decisive impact by trading the income we earn from non-agricultural activities for food that’s exclusively produced in these sustainable ways.
The late Masanobu Fukuoka of Shikoku Island in Japan relied on sustained, patient experimentation to develop what has become known globally as the One-Straw Revolution. He argued, much as the practitioners of permaculture do, that it’s a great misconception and malpractice to fight against nature to meet our needs. While his father was a wealthy landowner and politician who practiced what we today call monoculture farming—setting aside large tracts of land to grow one crop at a time—young Masanobu developed his framework of “how about not do this?” Instead of tilling and sowing with machine-precision, fighting disease and insects with industrial chemicals, and maximizing yields with genetic engineering, he touched upon a profound realization: nature has succeeded in growing all manner of foods and flora on this planet for eons, as well as supported human life in this same “automatic” way for millennia. His major discoveries in agriculture have been distilled into four tenets: the earth cultivates itself (there is no need for plowing or turning the soil); the unaltered natural environment—the growth and decay of plant and animal life—fertilizes the soil without any help from man (there’s no need for chemical fertilizers); the balance of beneficial vs. invasive species of flora can be observed in naturally bio- diverse landscapes (no weeding by tillage or herbicides is needed); and if the soil is healthy, and biodiversity is allowed to flourish, there will be no need for chemical pesticides. This approach does not conflate “doing nothing” with not planning; in fact, Fukuoka recognized very early on in his experimentation that it takes a nuanced, deliberative effort to mimic the natural environment while also promoting food production. Any landscape architect worth their training could outline the creativity and energy required for this type of land use relationship to flourish.
Gabe Brown is an organic farmer in North Dakota who has for decades preached the gospel of soil health. While his operation is at once a large-scale production of nearly a dozen cash crops, the farm also grows 140 other species alongside the made-for-market agriculture in order to capture all of the environmental and health benefits that come from mimicking nature. Both biodiversity and an abundance of nutrients are found in soils that are not relegated to factory farming using single-crop, heavy-tillage, resource-intensive methods. One important aspect of soil health that Brown points to is infiltration, or the ability of soil to hold water. Even with crop rotation, growing one crop at a time on a parcel of land necessarily exhausts that land of specific nutrients in large quantities. Consequently, fertilizers need to be added to amend that soil for whatever is to be grown there next. Fertilized soil has a propensity to cause an overgrowth of both the crop one wants to harvest, as well as unwanted species (‘weeds’). As a result, herbicides need to be sprayed. Many herbicides are chelates, chemicals that bind metal. This ‘fixes’ (makes unavailable) micronutrients, such as zinc or manganese, in the soil that plants need to uptake to ward off disease. Lowered disease resistance will require the farmer to spray fungicides. Additionally, the larger, fertilizer-enhanced, crops, weeds, and fungus will in turn attract pests in greater numbers, which necessitates that the farmer spray pesticides. A sick irony of pesticides is that they kill off the very predator species that naturally control the pests the farmer is trying to ward off. They also kill off pollinators that are crucial to the propagation of plants, and other insect species that, while neither pollinating or serving our needs as predators, still play their own important roles in the ecosystem. Year after year of chemical-intensive cycles degrades the soil quality, effectively reducing the depth at which soil can be useful to grow food and support other life. The earth below this point, which has now ceased to support life, compacts and hardens, creating a barrier against the uptake of water. So what have we now reached? A point where all of the harsh chemicals applied to make a single crop grow are being washed off the land into nearby rivers and lakes, polluting water sources downstream, including all life that relies on the cleanliness of that water. Reversing this cycle takes persistent effort across many years, but Brown has demonstrated on his farm that by growing not one crop, but a rich diversity of crops and groundcovers in balance with each other, a grower can completely phase out the use of harsh chemicals, and increase their land’s ability to retain water, which is all the more critical in years of drought. On Brown’s farm the infiltration rate of water steadily increased from half an inch of rainfall per hour to fifteen inches of rainfall per hour over nineteen years of holistic land management. Echoing the philosophy of Fukuoka, Brown likes to remind people that in any sustainable farming practices, we don’t seek to kill our way through problems with pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, but instead we defer to life, to biodiversity.
To conduct a personal inventory of weekly food consumption and its attendant greenhouse emissions, simply ask yourself the following questions: Where are the fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes that I consume grown? Are they in season for my region right now? How far and by what method do I travel to acquire these foods (where is my nearest farmer’s market?). How resource-intensive are these foods themselves—were herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides used in their production? How much water needed to be pumped in because of poor soil quality, which cannot hold adequate reserves of water on its own? How much water was irrigated from far off because of poor rainwater catchment design?
Depending on your household income, these factors become increasingly easy to control for. As an example, a white collar professional is highly unlikely to live in a food desert where access to fresh fruits and vegetables presents a great burden to the individual who seeks it. Such an individual can directly impact their share in the emission of not only greenhouse gases, but also chemical pollutants, by purchasing their food directly from local farmers who produce it using organic, holistically managed agricultural practices. For those of us who eat out frequently, it is worth asking the ownership of our favorite restaurants how important they consider ethically sourced food supplies, and to what extent they participate in this network of mutuality.
When we make the choice to purchase sustainably-produced food from local farmers, we are explicitly reducing our share of the stress placed on wilderness and forest edge-lands. These are the places into which monoculture farms expand, and these expansions regularly occur outside of the United States as well. Per the USDA, approximately half of America’s fresh fruit and fruit juice consumption needs are met through imports, and the total volume of US agricultural imports has increased by an average of four percent per year since 2000.
Are there individual actions we can take in the face of maddeningly powerful mega systems that capriciously crush our efforts to safeguard the environment on a whim? The answer is yes.
Our business-as-usual food demands place a burden not only on the environment but also on the quality of life among subsistence farmers around the world, who are among those conscripted to produce our food on ever-expanding monocrop plantations. Let’s take the example of coffee, nearly one-hundred percent of which is grown outside of the United States. When it’s produced in a non-sustainable way, the ensuing forest and soil degradation drastically reduces the availability of nutritionally rich wild roots, tubers, mushrooms, spices, and fruits for the subsistence farmers who rely on these foods to supplement their food crop cultivation. The Journal of Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems recently detailed that such commercialization of agriculture, which shifts subsistence farmers into cash crop cultivation for our benefit, detrimentally impacts their nutritional security over the long term.
Abstinence from non-locally grown foods is not realistic—recall our inescapable network of mutuality—but given a certain level of expendable income, the bounds of which families should certainly decide for themselves, the choice to consume ethically produced foods can be made a consideration of utmost importance.
The late Toby Hemenway, author of the landmark sustainable agriculture book Gaia’s Garden, noted that we individually authorize the continuation of resource-intensive monoculture, which kills biodiversity and contributes mightily to global warming, whenever we shop at the supermarket. The economic efficiency of our global supply chain makes discount shopping unbelievably enticing. But the reality of unfair labor practices and ecologically disastrous farming techniques should likewise make that same type of grocery shopping an opportunity for deliberation; it can serve to be one of the easiest forms of environmental activism available to us.
I was tuned to NPR recently when the 45th President of the United States announced his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement with the now-infamous line, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” It was an announcement I had expected since the election in November, but which left me stunned nonetheless. So I decided to ask myself what could be done. What if one is inclined, on a personal level, to care about climate change and its cousin-sister ecological concerns—fresh air, clean water, and unpolluted lands on which to live and grow our food? Are there individual actions we can take in the face of maddeningly powerful megasystems that seem able to capriciously crush our best efforts on a whim? The answer is “yes!” We can take the direct action of shopping local, seasonal, and organic food sources as often as possible.
In the three hours that I spent at the Ballard Market, I saw one Indian-American couple outside of the three that I came with—and this at a market that supports two-hundred stalls plus 30 additional brick-and-mortar small businesses. Later in the week I stopped by the Safeway down the block where I saw Indian-Americans galore and sighed.
Monal Pathak has been an ecologically-minded American since his childhood in Maine, where summers were spent picking strawberries, raking blueberries, and planting a fantastic vegetable garden with his mother. His work includes time with the Environmental Protection Bureau of the NYS Office of the Attorney General. He writes from Seattle.