I would like to inject some real world experience into this otherwise
abstract discussion of food and
In addition to being an ecological biologist, a permaculture production
food farmer for 9 years, and an expert on biomass fuels, I have also
been teaching permaculture since 1997 and have worked in many countries
on food/energy production design issues. I have certified more than 400
people in permaculture design since 1997.
For more info on this see my site at
So in light of my experience I have a couple of things to say. Let us
dispense, for the moment only, with the talk of hunter-gatherer models
since, to return to that state or to imitate it with design would meet
limited acceptance. This is not the core design goal of permaculture
although some of our small scale subsistence agriculture designs vaguely
look like a hunter-gatherer paradise (i.e. it never existed like this in
The issue of private property as we now
define it also complicates that model. We are living in an agricultural
age and permaculture offers huge benefits to both production and
As far as I know I was one of the only farmers fully utilizing
permaculture to produce surplus food for sale in the US as a full time
On approximately two acres - half of which was on a terraced
35 degree slope - I produced enough food to feed more than 300 people
(with a peak of 450 people at one point), 49 weeks a year in my fully
organic CSA on the edge of Silicon Valley. If I could do it there you
can do it anywhere.
I did this for almost nine years until I lost the lease to my rented
land. My yields were often 8 times what the USDA claims are possible per
square foot. My soil fertility increased dramatically each year so I was
not achieving my yields by mining my soil. On the contrary I built my
soil from cement-hard adobe clay to its impressive state from scratch.
By the end I was at over 22% organic matter
with an exchange capacity (CEC) of over 25.
CEC is an indirect measure of soil humus or
the ability of the soil to hold nutrients available to crops. The higher
the number the more nutrients are stored and available. For reference,
most Class I commercial agricultural soil is lucky to hit 2% organic
matter - the dividing line between a living and dead soil - with a CEC
At most times I had no more than half of my land under production with
the rest in various stages of cover cropping. And I was only producing
at a fraction of what would have been possible if I had owned the land
and could have justified the investment into an overstory of integrated
tree, berry, flower and nut crops along with the various vegetable and
The farm produced so much income that I was
routinely in the top 15% of organic farms in California (which has over
2000 organic farms) in most years on a fraction of the land that my
colleagues were using. I grew over 45 different kinds of crops so my
financial success cannot be attributed to growing a few high value crops
like Yuppie Chow (salad mix).
Unlike other organic farmers, I almost never used even organic
pesticides on my farm.
The permaculture ecosystem I designed was so
self-managing and self-maintaining with natural controls such as
carnivorous insects, toads, lizards, snakes, owls, bats, and other
allies, that it was rare that I needed to intervene (I can count the
times on one hand that I intervened over 9 years).
On the few occasions I did, I used coffee
solution made from waste coffee. You didn't think plants made
caffeine to get you high did you? Caffeine is an extremely effective
natural insecticide, which degrades in the sunlight or air in about 24
hours after use.
On the subsistence agriculture level, we regularly have designed
productions systems around the world, which feed everyone living in a
given house within a 50-foot radius of the house. This rule of thumb
holds pretty well because the more folks who live there, the bigger the
house, the larger the surface area, so no more than 50 feet is really
The math is easy. With a polyculture, yields of 3-10 pounds of food per
square foot are easy to come up with in most climates. For comparison,
commercial agriculture in California , which is way inefficient,
routinely runs about 1.5-2.5 pounds per square foot per year across a
wide variety of crops.
People need to eat about two pounds of mixed
food a day if active, or around 750 pounds a year. In a good but
somewhat sloppy design, you need about 500 square feet per person
MAXIMUM. In a very good design, 200 square feet will do the job. If your
diet is heavy on grain you'll need more space but not an astronomical
amount. Utilize a greenhouse to extend seasons and exchange air rich in
carbon dioxide from chicken houses or human houses, which otherwise
would go to waste, and yields ratchet up even more.
Take a little more space and include ducks
and aquaculture into the mix and the yields become quite diverse and
This sort of system is typical in Vietnam
now and there is no longer any measurable hunger there. Wouldn't it be
nice if the US could do that with its "superior" first world
Can't do this on a commercial scale?
Tell that to Archer Daniels Midland who
operates many acres of greenhouses in Decatur using partially integrated
production of fish, lettuce and other vegetables using waste carbon
dioxide, grain by-products and other by-products from its 100-million
gallon per year alcohol fuel production facility, while delivering these
profitable agricultural products in trucks running on biodiesel (made
from the corn and soybeans they process). This qualifies as commercial
scale, very rudimentary permaculture that is wildly profitable and
As a reality check, I'd like to remind everyone that in the 1850's,
prior to refrigerated transport, New York City supplied all its food for
a population of over a million from within 7 miles of the borders of the
city. (It wasn't worth the cost of horse feed and time to go further
than 7 miles to export food into the city).
No one would discount a system of community
food security for one million people as non-commercial.
There are two main reasons known for the dramatically increased
productivity of a polyculture: the benefit of mycorhyzzal symbiosis
(which is destroyed in chemical agriculture) and less solar saturation.
Solar saturation is the point at which a plants' photosynthetic
machinery is overwhelmed by excess sunlight and shut down. In practice,
this means that most of our crop plants stop growing at about 10am and
don't start again until about 4 in the afternoon.
Various members of a polyculture shade each
other, preventing solar saturation, so plants metabolize all day.
Polyculture as we pursue in permaculture uses close to 100% of the
sunlight falling on its mixed crops.
Monoculture rarely can use more than 30% of
the total sunlight received before saturation.
How long could you run any business without
external support at 30% efficiency? When you look at a simple Mexican
permaculture example, growth of the three sisters of corn, beans and
squash (not even counting the 200 vegetables of various sorts growing in
the shade of the sisters) you get close to 90% solar efficiency. When
you total up the pounds of food from a Mexican acre you get FAR MORE
FOOD than the highest yielding nitrogen soaked Iowa cornfield.
This is the myth of the green revolution;
that the highest total food yields occur in chemical monoculture.
Enough of this. The argument that we don't have enough food to go around
is specious anyway. We currently produce more than twice the amount of
food we need to feed everyone, even with the extremely inefficient model
of monoculture. What starving people lack is money to buy food which is
not considered a right but a commodity.
Even being able to buy the food isn't a
guarantee of access. Midwesterners find it cheaper to burn 5 cent a
pound corn in stoves for heat even though Mexican families are willing
to pay up to $1 a pound for corn to feed their family.
So you say,
"Well if you're such a wise guy and you
obviously would make so much more money from the greater yields of a
simple three crop permaculture system, why don't corporations in the
Midwest do it to make more money?"
This gets to the core of the problem which
is not population/resources and/or biological models of overpopulation
which typically apply to wild animals.
Capitalism is concerned with more than just making money. The reason why
monocultures are favored by corporations EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE THE LEAST
EFFICIENT WAY OF PRODUCING FOOD in pounds of food per acre is that it
can be done with the least amount of labor.
To harvest the three sisters you would need
a digital harvester - i.e. two hands - not a combine. Even though the
increased labor would be totally justified by the increased profit,
corporations are totally allergic to dealing with labor. Labor is messy.
It organizes, it wants a fair share of the profit, cities want tax money
to pay for worker habitat infrastructure and other pesky things that
corporations will avoid at all costs.
Our current form of agribusiness is a
textbook case of design maximizing the advantage of capital to the
disadvantage of labor facilitated by the artificially low cost of
The other reason is control of the market. It is now estimated that 80
percent of the world's arable (read European-style plowed) agricultural
land is now in the hands of multi-nationals. It has served their needs
to keep productivity low to make it possible to get a hold of as much of
the means of production as possible.
Farmers who are barely making a living sell
their land for a fraction of those making a good profit. Midwest corn
farmers generally net only about $50-75 per acre on corn on a gross
income of $300 per acre.
My discussion above is not to be taken as a suggestion that population
growth is not a problem, it is. So let me make a quick comment on
population, from a designer's point of view, which is totally related to
the structural issues above. I dare anyone to find an example in which
population is stable yet there is no system for security in old age.
It has been shown in countless studies that
the ONLY consistent reason why population stabilizes is that people know
they will have security in their old age. At that point they stop having
Why? It has absolutely nothing to do with
the biological resource-population relationships.
We are not wild animals and have markedly
different behavior. In a developing country, or any country for that
matter, without a secure social security system for the aged, you need
at least two kids to support each elderly adult. In virtually every case
studied where stabilization of social systems occurred, women
immediately find systems to end unwanted pregnancy.
Herbal indigenous methods for ending
fertility are known all over the world. In my own Italian heritage -
hardly a herb-oriented aboriginal tribe, even into the 1900's, utilized
ergot obtained from the local apothecary to end unwanted pregnancy.
So structural adjustment - the neoliberal formula the World Bank and IMF
impose on the developing world - ensures population growth. By
intentionally eliminating a secure social safety net as a condition of
borrowing money, population growth - and therefore market growth for
various consumer goods - continues to grow. Therein lies the rub. If
population doesn't continue to grow, capitalists rapidly run out of
Can't let that happen now can we?
Permaculture design offers an alternative security for old age when the
family has even a little land.
In the Deccan desert of India , where there
is huge success with permaculture turning hundreds of square miles of
man-made desert back into productive designed rain forest, there is a
"Trees are better than sons."
Sons might take care of you in your old age
but income or trade from your productive trees (food, timber and fuel)
This approach offers families security to
limit population growth and takes the supply of old age security back
into the people's hands.
Restorative agriculture?\which goes far beyond sustainable agriculture -
depends on solar energy replacing fossil fuel use. Buckminster Fuller
and I discussed this back in 1983 when he wrote the foreword for my book
Alcohol Can Be A Gas!, that accompanied my ten part PBS television
series at that time. (Alcohol is a virtually pollution free engine fuel
which is superior in almost every way to gasoline.)
World photosynthesis in its fully undesigned
state, produces biomass in wasteful agriculture and in the wild which
far exceeds human need. Our analysis shows that world biomass
photosynthesis produces between 6 and 15 times what we used to power
every human need every year, including food, electricity,
transportation, and heat.
In a designed system, especially a permaculturally-designed system, we
could increase the biomass produced by an order of magnitude and in so
doing supply all our needs in a much smaller footprint. For instance,
you only get about 200 gallons per acre of alcohol fuel from corn, but
1000 gallons from sugar beets, 1200 from Jerusalem Artichokes, 1500
gallons from annual sugar cane in southern states and a variety of other
crops which, when properly designed for climate, might yield 2500
gallons per year from two crop cycles.
This would be done while increasing soil
fertility and providing all the animal food we need as a by-product
(replacing the corn which largely goes for animal feed now) at a
fraction of the energy cost of corn-soybean agribusiness. This is all
possible right now without any new technology.
The Department of Energy-sponsored program to reduce the cost of
Soon, yields based on that carbohydrate
(cellulose) rather than the relatively scarce starch or sugar
carbohydrate scenarios described above will ratchet up cost-effective
yield another order of magnitude. (We could do it right now with current
technology but the fuel would be about $1.65/gallon wholesale). Once
again this is just scratching the surface.
I could go on for two weeks non-stop about this; my colleagues and I do
so in my permaculture design courses.
The point is that although humans are great
at creating deserts and poverty, we also have the incredible capacity to
design ecological systems that work for everyone - even some
corporations. The argument that we can't produce enough ecologically is,
at its source, promoted by corporations who benefit from a view of
scarcity and limited resources which they control.
Their constant cry is TINA "There Is No
Right, and the wizard says,
"Pay no attention to the man behind the
Around the world people are demonstrating
that, not only are there alternatives, there are alternatives that allow
us all to take care of each other and the rest of the species we live
with, and to direct surpluses from our designs back to this care.
These are the three main tenets of
We aren't waiting for governments,
corporations, or bureaucracies to solve the world's problems.
We will do
it with or without their help.
We are already doing it and no one can
stop us because we can't be forced to buy what we don't need anymore.
Since few of us in permaculture education
are hired by anyone in business or government, we can't be fired or
threatened. I like to say, if you want to end transnational capitalism,
(the very opposite of bioregionalism), then stop giving them your
To do that you need to start producing what
you need - plus some surplus for others - bioregionally and I would
respectfully suggest that permaculture design is a good tool to begin