[permaculture] Global Food Supply Near the Breaking Point

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Fri May 19 13:28:11 EDT 2006

Kathy Evans wrote:

> I am new to this list and wonder if I am at the wrong party...> "create an
unsustainable practice like agriculture"

Kathy, although we meander into philosophy at the drop of a meme, everyone
here loves practical issues. But it takes asking a particular question to
get a thread like that started. We've spent countless screens-full on
everything from pond-building to soil to sea buckthorn. Check the archives,
or ask a question about what you want to know (outside of, "I want to know
everything!"). And thanks, Mitch, for the book plug.

LL wrote: 
> So what label do you prefer to describe food/fiber production?

It most likely needs to be done on a smaller, more horticultural scale.
Agriculture, in the way anthropologists define it (see recent post of mine)
is not sustainable.
> Are you suggesting that billions of people should compete with other lifeforms
> for access to wild field & forest feedlots for nutritional sustenance? Sure
> would
> provide a healthy diet but would leave little time for other activities even
> if there
> was enough food from these sources to go around.

That's the myth that "modern" people have about foragers (hunter-gatherers).
Foragers in even the most miserable conditions, like those in the Kalahari,
only spend 2-4 hours per day getting food and the other basics of life. Most
of us work 8-10 hours a day, as do those in agricultural societies where
most people are farmers. Agriculturists until the oil age lived shorter
lives, had more malnutrition, more degenerative diseases, and worked much
harder than foragers, and died in droves from famine regularly (see Fernand
Braudel's books for how common huge famine has been in Europe). There are
really good data on this.

Ah, I see Sean has addressed this nicely. Again, see Jared Diamond's "The
Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" at

>I have witnessed this
> happening on my land
> as I prepared 4 acres of biointensive raised beds for vegetable production.
> I could hardly believe what I was seeing. The production potential of this
> land is immense and will only increase.
> I provided an initial massive shot of manures, composts, rock dusts and
> hundreds of hours of tractor-based tillage
> and it has been coasting ever since.

Yes, but the difficulty is that if all 6 to 9 billion of us do that, where
are all the resources going to come from? You used huge amounts of off-site
resources to restore your land; a footprint far larger than the soil you
restored, and possibly even more energy than you'll get back out of it (all
those calories of tractor fuel--how many million or billion calories of food
need to be grown to make up for that?). Maybe one or two billion of us could
do that, but if all of us do, there won't be a scrap of wild land left on
the planet; we'll cut it all down for compost and pasture for manure. Again,
I don't like these facts and I hate to sound pessimistic, but no one so far
has shown me an energetically possible way around it. It could maybe be done
slowly, by cover cropping abused cropland for few years and avoiding
off-site inouts, but what will the human race eat meanwhile? If we start
now, while we have oil to keep some land in production while we restore all
the rest, we might make it. I can only hope that everyone on the planet
starts practicing permaculture/natural farming right now.



More information about the permaculture mailing list