Food Forests and Earth Stewardship
In Nature, all things are interconnected to each other, and in permaculture we strive to understand the relationships that comprise the ecological web of life. Through understanding the relationships in an ecological system, we can model these to build similarly sustainable systems.
Of all the ecological relationships we might encounter, possibly the most important (to us) is the relationship of humanity to the rest of Nature. One of the greatest realisations that come from studying permaculture is that we are not above Nature, we are part of it, an integral part of the system so to speak, and when we assume out rightful and proper place, our relationship to Nature changes profoundly.
The aim of this article is to examine humanity’s relationship to Nature, how it has changed over time, how we can reclaim our unique ecological niche, and the benefits gained from reclaiming our rightful place in the ecological scheme of things.
The Earliest Human Relationship to Nature
If we look back to the dawn of humanity, when modern mankind, Homo sapiens, first walked the planet approximately 200,000 years ago, we were greeted by abundant, lush forests that had been growing for the last 460 million years.
Mankind’s relationship to Nature at the very beginning would have been exactly like that of the rest of the fauna on the planet, no other relationship would be possible. Humans were an integral, mutually interdependent part of Nature.
The only effort that was required of humans to fulfil all their basic needs of food, water, clothing and shelter was to roam through Nature searching and gathering the resources they required. No other effort was required, as all the flora, the plants and trees, are self-maintaining, and the energy that powers the whole ecological system is derived from sunlight. Nature’s own ecological systems maintain their own balance, they recycle nutrients and energy, and plant life converts sunlight, water, air and mineral nutrients into food to sustain all fauna, including humans. This system is 100% sustainable, and in this form has maintained humanity in the way described for the last 190,000 years of our 200,000 year existence, that’s 95% of the time we’ve been on this planet.
The Radical Shift
The relationship of humanity to Nature began to change approximately 10,000 years ago (somewhere between 8500 and 7000 BC) when humans in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East first invented Agriculture, the systematic husbandry of plants and animals.
With agriculture, mankind began to ‘control’ Nature to their benefit. No longer would humans need to hunt and gather food, they could manage their animals and plants, grow them, and take what they needed at their convenience. They could now create intensive food production systems that provided high concentrations of usable resources close to home.
With all progress there is a price to be paid, and there surely was with the advent of agriculture. Humans now had to work the earth, maintain animals and engage in what was basically hard physical labour, whereas beforehand they could roam free and take what they needed.
This shift in relating to Nature is captured succinctly in the very befitting biblical story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, being expelled from the garden of Eden, and Adam cursed to work the earth. Jungian psychologists look into classical stories of various cultures and analyse the symbolic meaning to draw out the deeper meaning embedded within. We can see here from a Jungian perspective that this story really outlines the plight of humanity, the transition from living freely in the forests and taking what they needed, to the birth of agriculture, where mankind separated themselves from Nature and had to now work hard to reap Nature’s freely available abundance.
As we can see, there was a clear shift in the relationship of humans to Nature, from the collaborator to the controller.
Through this shift of being an integral part of Nature to disconnecting from it and trying to change the way Nature works, humanity soon discovered that Nature does not comply with human will, Nature has its own balance which it seeks to establish. Since Nature’s efforts are relentless and unceasing, and being powered by the sun, it has unlimited energy to create its end goal — living ecosystems.
In contrast, humanity, with its system of agriculture, does not create living ecosystems — it destroys living ecosystems to create spaces maintained in an artificially ‘damaged’ state, which Nature seeks to repair. We will discuss this concept in more detail when we cover the concept of forest succession. Essentially, Nature is trying to reach a specific end-state and it has unlimited time, resources and energy to do so (the sun’s energy is limitless when it comes to growing plants). Humanity through agriculture seeks to push Nature’s processes and its creative outflow backwards, and it is evident through our agricultural practices today which consume huge amounts of time, resources and energy, which all come at a huge cost.
In essence, Nature uses the sun’s energy to build and create, and humanity uses the oil from within the Earth itself to produce energy to antagonise the creative tide of Nature in an attempt to hold it it back. A rather curious state of affairs….
So, in effect, humanity has gone far beyond the role of controller and has pitted itself against Nature. It has cast itself in the role of adversary and has started a war that can never end. The irony is that as long as Nature wins, all the delicately balanced ecosystems stay intact, and we all stay alive. If we somehow ‘win’ and ‘defeat’ Nature, we will perish along with all life on this planet.
What is sad is how we have moved from seeing the Earth as our mother, hence the concept of ‘Mother Earth’, to a perspective where Nature is a wild force to be tamed, harnessed and exploited to our needs, or more accurately, our wants.
To really comprehend the extent to which we have set up ourselves in an adversarial relationship with Nature, it is important to understand the ecological concept of forest succession, because this concept makes us intimately familiar with Nature’s goals. Without clearly understanding what Nature is trying to do, we can’t really tell whether our efforts support or run counter to those of Nature.
When any soil is laid bare or disturbed, Nature has a system for repairing the degraded ground in order to prevent soil erosion and to reconstruct the ecosystem which was there or should be there (by Nature’s choice, not ours!).
As the first line of action, Nature deploys the ‘front line troops’, the pioneer plants, to stabilise the soil. These plants all have various unique attributes and aid the reconstruction process in various ways. Here are some examples:
- Plants with deep tap roots drill into hardpan to decompact it, creating channels to allow water and air back in the soil.
- Plants with fine, net-like root structures hold the soil together and prevent erosion on slopes and banks.
- Plants with thorns or which are poisonous protect the ground cover plants from being over-grazed by herbivores.
We are all familiar with these amazing pioneer plants, we commonly call them weeds!
Weeds are by definition “plants growing where we don’t want them to” and that is not a biological or ecological categorisation, it’s just a value judgement of the worth and place of certain plants in the ecosystem according to subjective human opinion and whim. Quite a presumptuous concept in my opinion.
Is it any surprise that these ‘weeds’ perform exactly the role that is required to restore a living ecosystem?
Nature does nothing without purpose or uselessly.
— Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) from “Politics”
Regrettably, the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers is lost upon our so called ‘modern enlightened society’.
The pioneer plant’s action of stabilising any soil disturbance or damage is only the first of many steps of a full-blown reconstruction process which Nature carries out. If an abandoned field is left there long enough, Nature will, over time, transform it into a forest. This process I am describing is called ecological succession.
Ecological succession is the orderly and predictable process by which an ecological community progressively transforms itself to ultimately create a stable system.
This process is initiated whenever new space is made available for Nature to work upon. This can either be new space created by a landslide or deposition of lava, or existing space created through the disturbance of an existing ecosystem through factors such as logging and clear-felling, fires, grazing of livestock and so forth.
Where no soil is present in the first instance, the process is termed primary succession, and in cases where soil is already present, the process is secondary succession.
We can also observe that forests go through the same succession process, which is termed forest succession, where any ground that is disturbed or made bare is transformed progressively by Nature to create a living ecosystem, such as a forest.
The process of forest succession can be described as follows:
- Pioneer plants first populate disturbed soil. These plants are annuals that spread by producing a large amount of seeds that are carried by the wind, allowing them to be carried far and wide. They have special adaptations that make them ideal for their pioneering function. They can grow in hot, dry and exposed conditions, and in very poor soil. They have special adaptations such as deep tap roots which break up compacted soil, extensive networks of fibrous roots which hold loose soil together, roots with nodes which contain nitrogen fixing bacteria which add nitrogen to the soil or they can employ thorns or contain substances toxic to herbivores to protect themselves from being eaten. These plants are short lived, and die down, improving the soil, and creating a leaf litter mulch which breaks down and starts the process of soil building.
- This pioneer plants create an environment which can support perennial plants and grasses, which then start inhabiting this space. Many perennials have their own special adaptations and survival mechanisms which allow them to transform what the pioneer plants have left behind into a grassy meadow. Shade intolerant tree seedlings also begin growing in this space.
- Once these changes have taken place, the space becomes suitable for the growth of woody pioneers or shrubs. The transformation into a shrubland elevates the height of the vegetation, and creates a protective microclimate which supports the growth of other small trees.
- Fast growing small, short-lived pioneer trees form a thicket which transforms the area into a young forest.
- The short-lived pioneer trees are gradually replaced by taller and longer lived hardwoods trees – the climax trees, and an understory of shade tolerant species grows below them, creating a mature forest.
This process is illustrated in the diagram shown below:
Once this system is established, it doesn’t remain static, nothing in Nature does — it’s a living, dynamic system. As plants naturally die down, they are replaced by others, and if a large space results from the loss of a large tree for example, a small cycle can occur in that space to repopulate it. If any disturbance occurs at any point in the process, this pushes the process of forest succession back a step in the localised area of the disturbance, and it continues forward from that point onwards.
Agricultural Practices vs. Forest Succession
Now that we’ve seen how forest succession works and what Nature strives to do with bare ground, let us reflect back to our traditional vegetable garden, with its cleared soil and rows of annual edible plants.
In the natural cycle of ecological succession, where would the traditional vegetable garden fit in?
If you guessed right, it fits into the very first stage — where the ground is disturbed and is populated by annual pioneer plants.
Well, it’s no coincidence that’s exactly how a traditional vegetable patch is utilised, bare soil is filled with annuals. Nature sees it in exactly the same way, bare soil to be stabilised by annual pioneer plants. Since there’s plenty of space between plants in a traditional vegetable patch, with the soil exposed to harsh sun, erosion by wind and rain, basically a sterile environment, Nature goes to work to create a living ecosystem in this space to repair the disturbance. It will introduce lots of pioneer plants into the space to try to initiate the process of forest succession, to transform the ecologically unstable vegetable garden into a stable forest.
Is it any great surprise ecologically that ‘weeds’ grow constantly in a traditional vegetable garden or in traditional agribusiness farms which grow plants in the same fashion?
The degree of unsustainability and energy inefficiency of traditional agricultural practices is glaringly obvious when we consider what is really going on, a futile ‘tug-of-war’. While Nature is trying to move our traditional vegetable garden to the second stage of ecological succession in order to stabilise it, we ‘weed’ the garden and regress it back to the former first stage of disturbed ground. It’s just like having one person building a wall, and another right behind them tearing it down. A sheer waste of energy! Nature has infinite patience, and will re-populate the space with pioneer plants once again, until we go and pull them up again. The cycle will repeat indefinitely, ad-infinitum, like a recurring nightmare. This is unsustainable gardening at its worst, how could we possibly do any worse than this?
Hopefully the futility of such an exercise should be self-evident! We pitch ourselves in a futile war, trying to reverse a cycle of Nature, because of some ill-founded abstract and patently stupid arbitrary notion that Nature should be a certain way, according to some unscientific convention we have arrived at in our small and feeble human minds without understanding the big picture. Even in the light of our knowledge of ecology, we persist for reasons of convenience, profitability and tradition…. Typically, instead of learning from our mistakes, we escalate our war against Nature, with herbicides — basically chemical warfare agents used against Nature! If it’s not obvious how flawed this approach is, then our species is pretty well heading straight off a cliff edge at full speed with the foot firmly on the accelerator….
A Wrong Turn In Human Progress
We may have taken a wrong turn on our road to ‘progress’ but it’s never too late to turn about and take corrective action so that we arrive at a much more pleasant destination than global ecological disaster.
Our species has voluntarily taken it upon itself to artificially elevate itself above Nature, which is a nonsensical position ecologically, for how can any species which is an intrinsic and interdependent part of the ecosystem be above or outside it? The spot we have vacated is still empty for us to reclaim again, only if we turn our intellect away from pride, arrogance and greed towards wisdom, responsibility and enlightened self-interest.
What is most peculiar is that our burden of traditional agriculture is of our own choosing. We have chosen to pit our will and effort against Nature, and to expend what available resources and energy we have to achieve these ends. We have chosen to attach a monetary value to food and to make it a commodity that is bought and sold for making a financial profit. We have chosen to disconnect from Nature, to shift our food production from local to rural areas and to pay others to supply our food, even supporting those who rape and pillage the planet for a profit without any regard for the future of our species or the planet. We have made a lot of bad choices, period.
If we look at how food is produced in our modern western society, it’s essentially unsustainable.
Current agribusiness food production methods rely heavily on oil and other fossil fuels to:
- Make synthetic nitrogen-based chemical fertilisers and synthetic chemical poisons (pesticides & herbicides).
- Power mining equipment to mine potassium and phosphorus fertilisers from the ground.
- Fuel farm machinery and equipment, and food transportation such as road transport and sea and air freight.
- Power cold storage and artificial ripening processes.
As the availability and accessibility of fossil fuels decreases, these practices become more costly, and since fossil fuel resources are limited and non-renewable, we run the risk of real food security issues — food shortages — because we can’t produce food in this energy-intensive, unsustainable way indefinitely.
Additionally, there are all the other issues that these agricultural practices create:
- soil erosion
- salinization of the soil
- pollution, eutrophication and ecological collapse of waterways and aquatic systems due to pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertiliser runoff
- soil degradation and loss of arable soil through overuse of chemical fertilizers
- destruction of forests which results in climate change, reduced rainfall, loss of natural habitat and loss of biodiversity.
It’s hard to deny we’ve taken a wrong turn in this big, unproven, immature, 200 year old experiment we call industrialisation, and it’s high time we took a pause to assess our current position, and reconsider our options.
What Are Our Options?
If our current food production systems are unsustainable, then we must have other more sustainable options we can look to when it comes to producing or food.
So, what other systems are out there?
People wonder whether organic farming is the answer. Well, it is a big step in the right direction — no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers and no genetically modified crops is a very good thing for human health and for the natural environment. The problem is that an organic farm still has a lot in common with the way that plants are cultivated and managed — large scale open fields with lots of heavy machinery. The use of machinery and equipment that is dependent on fossil fuels reduces the energy efficiency of this form of food production. Even though organic farming is more energy efficient than traditional commercial farming practices, and produces far more nutritious and flavoursome food, the energy returned in the form of food for the energy invested to produce it is still far from optimal.
To quote a paper published by the Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
Despite the complexities, uncertainties, and gaps in knowledge regarding energy consumption in both conventional and organic agriculture, a few general conclusions can be drawn. Typically, organic agriculture uses 30 to 50 percent less energy in production than comparable non-organic agriculture. Though organic agriculture on average uses energy more efficiently, it often requires an indirect trade-off of energy intensive inputs with additional hours of human labour — approximately one third more than conventional agriculture. — Energy Use in Organic Food Systems, by Jodi Ziesemer
Remember also that human labour is a relatively low energy input in terms of absolute energy compared to that used by machinery and equipment, so the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) in organic farming is still higher, even when you consider the higher level of human labour. Therefore, organic farming as a system is more energy efficient than conventional farming practices.
Similarly, the following research findings were published July 12, 2005 by Cornell University News Service in a review of the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial, the longest running comparison of organic vs. conventional farming in the United States.
Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes… David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agriculture, concludes, "Organic farming offers real advantages for such crops as corn and soybeans." Pimentel is the lead author of a study that is published in the July issue of Bioscience (Vol. 55:7) analyzing the environmental, energy and economic costs and benefits of growing soybeans and corn organically versus conventionally. — Cornell University
In primitive farming systems, such as peasant agricultural systems where the energy is provided by humans and animals, and where crop cultivation and animal rearing is conducted on a very small scale, these systems are very energy efficient, with EROEI figures as high as 6:1 to 10:1 (the food grown by one person can feed 6-10 people) but due to their small size, only limited amounts of food can be produced.
If these systems fall short, then it is fortunate that there is another option which we haven’t yet discussed, which gives us a wider array of possibilities, but requires a change in our relationships to Nature, one that actually works to our benefit.
Reclaiming Our Place
Returning to our rightful place in the ecological scheme of things where we can benefit from working with Nature, in synergy with the planet’s flora and fauna is possible. It’s where we naturally belong!
From the previous discussion it is apparent that one of the central issues in food production is how sustainable our energy sources are, and clearly the use of biological resources over non-renewable ones provides a greater energy efficiency.
So, let’s take it a step beyond just utilising human and animal labour. Imagine if we could harness the free energy of Nature, the wild energies of sun, wind, rain and earth, to get whole ecosystems working for us, to recruit the efforts of flora and fauna in our quest to grow food, now that would be an interesting option!
This is where permaculture enters the stage as our third option. Permaculture is a design system for building sustainable food production systems. though it encompasses far more than this, but since we’re focussed on food production in this article, this is the aspect that I will focus upon.
Permaculture is unique because its designs copy the systems found in Nature to design living ecosystems that produce food. Living ecosystems such as forest are the most sustainable systems. In Nature they provide all the food and shelter for the majority of life on the planet, and with no human intervention — no mowing, weeding, spraying or digging required, Nature does all the work.
The food production systems in permaculture systems are very energy efficient because they are designed to work with Nature, not against it. They are designed to produce the highest outputs (food or resources) with the least energy, work and materials. We simply help Nature do what Nature does best — grow plants and trees!
The major change here is the shift in our relationship to Nature. No longer are we hell-bent on twisting Nature to our will, attempting to dominate it through our cunning and prideful minds. Instead, we adopt a position of humility, connectedness, care and responsibility. We recognise our intelligence and utilise it to assist Nature, working in synergy with Nature to build harmonious, abundant living ecosystems.
Our motives change from financial profit, greed and the selfish accumulation of material assets to a position of higher ethical conduct (or enlightened self-interest at the very least), where caring for the planet, the people and sharing our abundance with each other become the new order of the day.
Our new role is not that of controller, but caretaker. We take on a position of Earth Stewardship, where we are responsible for the upkeep, maintenance, repair and reconstruction of the planet’s ecosystems. We understand through ecology and biology how natural systems work, and what Nature is trying to do, and we work collaboratively with Nature to push in the same direction, pooling our energy and effort to reach common goals much faster.
We saw earlier that Nature will transform bare ground into a forest, which takes about 50 to 300 years approximately, but if we plant up all the species required to construct a climax forest at the outset, and use edible species, we can have a food forest that is a productive functional living ecosystem in as little as 5 to 10 years. As studies have shown, such a system will progressively require less and less human input and intervention (other than harvesting food) as it grows and evolves.
In a stewardship role, not only can we maintain and rejuvenate the existing forests on the planet to maintain the quality of our air and water on the planet, but we can design and build forests that provide food for us by modelling Nature’s own systems. These food forest systems don’t require us to control them. Once we’ve constructed them we can step back and let Nature do its work. We can ease into the role of caretakers, and reap the benefits of working collaboratively with Nature.
Food forests can be built locally near communities, minimising the energy consumed in transporting food, and eliminating the unnecessary shipping of food from rural areas to cities. Food production can be localised once again, and communities can be much more connected with the production of their own food.
The non-renewable resources we have left can be used in the most efficient manner possible by using them where they will provide us with the best long-term benefits in terms of systems and structures, such as digging water retention earthworks to hydrate the landscape or building water storage infrastructure for example. This way the energy consumed benefits many generations. Biological resources, which are renewable, are used wherever possible, making our systems highly sustainable.
Permaculture has a lot to offer by providing guidelines for working with Nature to create the most energy efficient systems possible.
Humanity started off as a species which was an integral part of Earth’s thriving ecosystems, and progressively we became more detached and isolated from the rest of life with the advent of large scale agriculture. When we examine the consequences of straying from our natural ecological place and purpose as a species, we see the manifold issues that this has created, not only for us, but for all the other species on the planet.
We have reached a precarious position which threatens to plunge the whole planet into catastrophe! Out of enlightened self interest at the very least, but hopefully from a higher moral and ethical position, it is time to reassess our path of progress and take corrective action.
By shifting from a position of dominating Nature to one of Earth stewardship, by taking responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the planet’s ecological systems, we can benefit the planet as a whole, while at the same time ensuring the continued existence of our species.
By modelling our food production systems on the time-proven ecological systems of Nature, and using food forests to grow food, we can build extremely energy efficient and sustainable food production systems that require very little effort to maintain. After we design and build food forests, we can take a step back, and let Nature take over. We become stewards of these food forests, and as they grow, they need less and less of our intervention.
Through localising our food production once again, we can save tremendous amounts of energy by avoiding unnecessary transportation, and we can reconnect our communities to the sources of their food.
There is no doubt that we have both the intelligence and capacity to act as stewards of the planet, and we do have the choice to utilise the planet’s resources in a sustainable and ethical way. If we act now while we still have a choice, we can make the transition much smoother and easier. If we wait till it’s too late, we will be forced to adopt this approach without the ability to transition at a comfortable pace. Planned progression is always better than uncontrolled crisis.
The sooner we recognise the planet as a resource entrusted to us to use ethically and responsibly, irrespective of our underlying belief systems, the sooner we can ensure a safer future for all life on the planet. We are caretakers of a huge global garden, and as long as we protect it, we can take as much as we need to meet our needs, and there’s enough for everyone. What more could we ask for?