[permaculture] It's Not Rocket Science: Land Productivity, Food Rights

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Thu Mar 19 10:39:37 EDT 2009

Stan Goff

It's Not Rocket Science: Land Productivity, Food Rights

Originally posted at Feral Scholar
I am offering this piece by my dear collaborator, 
De, as an essential bit of counter-propaganda 
against Big Ag -- one of the key players in the 
oligarchy that holds sway over the Obama 
administration every bit as much as they have 
Bush II, Clinton, Bush I... etc. etc., just go 
back and check.
The nascent food underground in this country is a 
mass movement in embryo form that offers us "food 
praxis" as a point of departure in redesigning 
our built environment for a post-imperial, and -- 
yes -- post-capitalist age.
* * * * *
Not Rocket Science: Land Productivity, Food Rights
By DeAnander
We're all familiar with the myth: we learned it 
in school. It goes something like this:
Once Upon a Time, in the 1960's, a crew of 
brilliant whitefellas in lab coats Saved the 
World by revolutionising farming and eliminating 
world hunger. Their new, advanced 
mechanical/chemical farming methods -- vast areas 
of monocrop, heavy tractors, giant combines, 
tonnes of artificial pesticides and fertilisers 
-- and their new, improved, superior hybridised 
crops increased yields tenfold and more. Without 
industrial farming, billions would starve, even 
though other billions would be re-sentenced to 
the short lives of brutal, backbreaking toil from 
which they were rescued by industrial/mechanised 
farming. Therefore, anyone who advocates organic 
or "sustainable" farming practise is some kind of 
heartless elitist who wants billions to starve 
and the rest to live as dawn-to-dusk field slaves 
-- for this is what will happen if we do not 
continue and expand the highly successful [and 
highly profitable, for everyone except farmers 
and eaters] model of industrial/corporate 
farming. There is no other way to feed ourselves. 
If there are "external costs" of the industrial 
farming system, we will just have to accept them.
That's what I was taught in school -- and 
probably you were too, if the subject of 
agriculture was even mentioned during your school 

The real story -- slowly emerging now into public 
discourse, in bits and pieces, in a mosaic of 
books, documentary films, research, nationalist 
and peasant movements, grassroots efforts -- is a 
lot more ambiguous and complicated. Did 
agricultural productivity really rise as a result 
of industrial farming methods? Well, yes and no; 
it depends how you measure productivity. Was 
hunger really eliminated by the so-called Green 
Revolution of the 1960's? Obviously not, since 
billions are going hungry worldwide today. How 
effective were the new artificial pesticides and 
fertilisers really? And what are the long-term 
consequences of their use? On what theories was 
this shift in agriculture based, and who 
benefited most, and what other agendas were on 
the table (or under it) at the time? And most 
urgently perhaps -- as we measure the annual loss 
of topsoil, the reduced nutritional value of 
industrially-farmed food, and the many risks to 
food security posed by massively centralised and 
fossil-fuel-dependent food production -- is there 
any other way to feed ourselves? If the answer is 
Yes, and any other approach to farming and food 
is capable of feeding us, then these two (or 
more) competing models of farming which should be 
examined and evaluated. But if the answer is No, 
then we are indeed the captives of an irrevocable 
choice made sometime in the 1930's and 1940's, 
with no way out.
So let us talk first of all about productivity: 
the productivity of land, that is, land producing 
food that we can eat.

First of all, when we consider climax ecosystems 
(maximally productive ecosystems, those which 
sustain the highest levels and diversity of life 
per hectare/acre), we find that they are never 
monocrops. There is no such thing as a monocrop 
in nature: all ecosystems are symbiotic, 
requiring the interactions of tens to tens of 
thousands of species to achieve maximum densities 
of life and nutritional exchange. A hectare of 
rigidly-enforced monocrop is "efficient" only in 
the sense that it can be harvested by machines 
(and the "efficiency" of machine harvesting is 
entirely dependent on the relative cost of 
machinery and fossil fuel); in terms of biomass 
produced, it is bound to be less productive than 
a climax ecosystem or a food plantation modelled 
on a climax ecosystem (the practise known as 
"permaculture") employing a wide variety of 
species in symbiotic, complementary 
relationships. What's the difference in 
Forest gardens are inspired by nature. The reason 
natural woodland is so productive is because it 
grows on many layers, rather like having half a 
dozen fields stacked on top of each other.
A forest garden imitates each woodland layer, but 
uses more edible species. The garden floor is 
covered with fruit and vegetables, and above 
them, the shrub layer is equally abundant.
A bit higher up are the fruit trees, such as 
apples, pears, medlars (a fruit rather like the 
crab apple) and quinces.
And then there is the canopy where those trees 
that aren't producing food are serving other 
essential functions such as recycling nutrients 
through their root system and leaf litter.
Some plants are selected primarily because they 
attract beneficial insects - hover flies, for 
example, which eat aphids - so no pesticides are 
Surely this requires endless attention and work?
'Over a whole year, an average of one day a 
week,' said Martin. 'A lot of that is harvesting. 
In terms of maintenance, it's about ten days a 
year.' Compared to running a conventional farm, 
that is virtually nothing.
But how much food does it produce? 'One designed 
for maximum yield could probably feed about ten 
people an acre,' said Martin. That's roughly 
double the number we can currently feed from an 
average acre of conventional arable farmland.

So we have a first approximation: diverse 
polyculture mimicking a climax ecosystem may be 
two times as productive as monocrop.
In Pasadena, California, the Dervaes family has 
been working towards food self-sufficiency on 
their standard (American suburban) 1/5 acre lot. 
Their food garden occupies 1/10th of an acre or 
about half the lot. On that .1 acre, they are 
cultivating over 350 species of plant, and their 
annual food yields are worth noting: (2008) 4,300 
pounds of vegetable food, 900 chicken and 1000 
duck eggs, 25 lbs of honey. Four people manage to 
get over 90 percent of their daily food from this 
1/10th of one acre. That would suggest that over 
30 people -- if not actually 40 -- might be able 
to eat from the productivity of one whole acre; 
far more optimistic than our British estimate.
But of course that's in mild southern California, 
with its year-round growing season. Surely in 
more northerly climes -- without Great Britain's 
good fortune in being situated near a warm ocean 
current -- manual garden-tending could not 
possibly out-produce fossil-assisted, mechanised 
farming? Dr Leonid Sharashkin examined closely 
the contribution of Russian smallholders and 
gardeners to the nation's food supply.
In 2003, 34.8 million families (66% of all 
households in the country) owned gardening plots 
(subsidiary plot, allotment, garden, or dacha) 
and were involved in growing crops for 
subsistence (Rosstat 2005b). By 2005, 53% (by 
value) of the country's total agricultural output 
was coming from household plots (which in 2006 
occupied only 2.9% of agricultural land), while 
the remaining 47% (by value -- Rosstat 2006) came 
from the agricultural enterprises (often the 
former kolkhozes and sovkhozes) and individual 
farmers, requiring 97.1% of agricultural lands 
(Rosstat 2007b).
(recent research by Sharashkin, as reported by Dmitry Orlov)

Let us review those statistics for just a moment. 
In post-Soviet Russia (with a growing season of 
about 110 days in the area studied) smallholders 
-- ordinary gardeners and market-gardeners -- 
control only 3 percent of the agricultural land, 
yet they are producing over half the country's 
total agricultural output (by value). Orlov 
highlights Dr Sharashkin's results: smallholders 
are growing 90% of all the potatoes in Russia, 
80% of all the vegetables, 50% of the meat and 
milk etc. In other words, very high proportions 
of certain products, including at least one 
calorie staple (potato). And they were doing so 
on about 3 percent of the available land. What 
does this say about the "efficiency" of the large 
industrial farms occupying the other 97 percent? 
Or about the potential of small-scale polyculture 
to feed large numbers of people?
And how can this be? How is it that these 
real-world results can co-exist with the repeated 
claims by monocrop/industrial farm experts that 
their methods are far more productive than "mere 
peasant farming"?

Vandana Shiva explains it carefully and clearly 
in her landmark paper "The War Against Farmers 
and the Land" [published in the 
highly-recommended anthology The Essential 
Agrarian Reader (ed. Norman Wirzba)]:
The polycultures of traditional agricultural 
systems have evolved because more yield can be 
harvested from a given area planted with diverse 
crops than from an equivalent area consisting of 
separate patches of monocultures. For example, in 
planting sorghum and pigeon pea mixtures, one 
hectare will produce the same yield as .94 
hectares of sorghum monocultures and .68 hectares 
of pigeon pea monoculture combined. Thus one 
hectare of polyculture produces what 1.62 
hectares of monoculture can produce. This is 
called the land equivalent ratio (LER).
Increased land-use efficiency and higher LER's 
have been reported for polycultures of 
millet/groundnut (1.26); maize/bean (1.38); 
millet/sorghum (1.53); maize/pigeon pea (1.85); 
maize/cocoyan/sweet potato (2.08); 
cassava/maize/groundnut (2.51). The monocultures 
of the Green Revolution thus actually reduced 
food yields per acre when compared with mixtures 
of diverse crops. This falsifies the argument 
often made that chemically intensive agriculture 
and genetic engineering will save biodiversity by 
releasing land from food production. In fact, 
since monocultures require more land, 
biodiversity is destroyed twice over -- once on 
the farm, and then on the additional acreage 
needed to produce the outputs a monoculture has 
displaced. Not only is the productivity measure 
distorted by ignoring resource inputs (focussing 
only on labour), it is also distorted by looking 
at a single and partial output rather than the 
total food output.
A myth promoted by the one-dimensional 
monoculture paradigm is that biodiversity reduces 
yields and productivity while monoculture 
increase yields and productivity. [...] Planting 
only one crop on an entire field as a monoculture 
will of course increase its yield. Planting 
multiple crops in a mixture will have low yields 
of individual crops, but will have high total 
output of food.
The Mayan peasants in the Mexican state of 
Chiapas are characterised as unproductive because 
they produce only two tonnes of corn per acre. 
However, the overall food output is twenty tonnes 
per acre. In the terraced fields of the high 
Himalayas, women peasants grow Jhangora (barnyard 
millet), marsha (amaranth), tur (pigeon pea), 
urad (black gram), gahat (horse gram), soybean 
(glysine max), bhat (glysine soya), rayans (rice 
bean), swanta (cow pea), and kodo (finger millet) 
in mixtures and rotations. The total output, even 
in bad years, is six times more than 
industrially-farmed rice monocultures.

Shiva emphasises that the diversity of crops in 
traditional peasant food gardening is essential 
to their high productivity: as many as twenty 
different sweet potato varieties (out of over 
5000 grown nationally) may be found in any garden 
in Papua New Guinea; in Java, the typical small 
farmer cultivates over 600 species in the home 
garden; in sub-Saharan Africa, women 
traditionally cultivate over 100 species in 
leftover spaces alongside cash crops; a single 
home garden in Thailand typically has over 230 
species. In eastern Nigeria results similar to 
those from Russia are reported: home gardens 
occuping only 2 percent of a family's land 
account for half of the total output of the farm.

Again and again, in widely varying climates, we 
see living proof that large-scale monoculture is 
hopelessly inefficient at producing food. It is 
efficient only at producing uniform commodities 
for export and/or industrial processing -- as 
with the nearly-inedible varieties of corn now 
dominating much of North America's farmland, 
which must be heavily processed before becoming 
at all palatable. (cf Michael Pollan's excellent 
book The Omnivore's Dilemma and the independent 
documentary film King Corn, inspired by Pollan's 
Not only does industrial monoculture produce less 
food per hectare, it produces its inefficient 
results at very high (and unaccounted-for) 
"external" costs. North American industrial 
farming has been estimated to consume 10 calories 
of fossil fuel for each calorie of food produced; 
estimates of topsoil loss vary from 2 to 6 
bushels for every bushel of industrial corn 
harvested. Water usage for industrial farming is 
similarly alarming: in North America, the ancient 
Oglalla Aquifer is being drained dry by the 
enormous water demands of huge acreages of 
unnatural monoculture. Meanwhile, runoff from 
artificially-fertilised fields is creating large 
"dead zones" in coastal waters, destroying 
fisheries; and pesticides are implicated not only 
in human health risks, but in the destruction of 
beneficial insect populations including essential 
pollinators. Clearly, the inefficiencies of 
industrial agriculture go far beyond how many 
bushels of corn or soy can be extracted from each 
hectare of land in each season; if non-renewable 
resources are being consumed, or other sources of 
food (such as oceans and rivers) are being 
damaged, then our food-producing capacities are 
being impaired by the way in which we are 
producing food -- in which case we are on a 
downward escalator of diminishing returns and 
negative feedback, and there is no future in the 
present paradigm.
Returning to our original article from the UK:
Could permaculture feed Britain?
I asked Patrick Whitefield, Britain's leading expert in permaculture.
'Good question,' he said. 'A better question 
would be, "Can present methods go on feeding 
Britain?" In the long term, it is certain that 
present methods can't because they are so 
entirely dependent on fossil-fuel energy. So we 
haven't got any choice other than to find 
something different.'

The petrochemical industry, the owners of 
massively consolidated factory farm operations, 
the farm equipment sector, and the purveyors of 
patented hybrid and GMO seed, meanwhile, are 
telling us that we have no choice: we must go on 
playing by their rules. But the numbers from 
actual research in the field (literally) suggest 
that their absolute certainty is ill-founded as 
well as self-serving. Smallholder polyculture not 
only can feed the world -- it may be the only 
farming method that will.

In seeking local food security, then, we may be 
quite confident that the encouragement of diverse 
smallholdings -- backyard gardens, SPIN farms, 
family farms -- practising polyculture rather 
than monoculture, is a sound, practical, and 
realistic strategy. It is not sentimental 
dreaming, nor the charming but useless hobby of a 
handful of food snobs; the myths we were taught 
in school are just that -- myths. It is 
industrial monoculture that is unsound, 
impractical, inefficient, and unrealistic. We can 
-- and sooner than we think, perhaps, we must be 
prepared to -- feed the world with 
small-to-medium-scale organic/sustainable farming.
It is not the productivity of land that prevents 
us from eliminating hunger. It is not the lack of 
new, improved, ever more phantasmagorical 
high-tech toys and techniques. What prevents us 
from eliminating hunger is our failure to return 
to, and adhere to, a moral code that recognises 
healthy food as a human right. As F M Lappé notes 
in a recent article, such a moral code is nearly 
universal among the people we call "primitive"; 
early humans, in striking contrast to many other 
animals, seem to have an innate tendency to share 
food -- even with others not directly related to 
themselves. Allowing people in our tribe, 
village, or city to starve is a violation of our 
primeval human nature. When we muster the 
political will to continue our ancient 
food-sharing behaviour in modern dress, the 
results are astonishing: astonishingly simple, 
astonishingly easy, astonishingly efficient.
In the early 90's, Brazil's fourth largest city 
made a serious commitment to the elimination of 
hunger among its citizens. As Lappé tells the 

Belo [Horizonte], a city of 2.5 million people, 
once had 11 percent of its population living in 
absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its 
children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly 
elected administration declared food a right of 
citizenship. [...]

The new mayor, Patrus Ananias-now leader of the 
federal anti-hunger effort-began by creating a 
city agency, which included assembling a 
20-member council of citizen, labor, business, 
and church representatives to advise in the 
design and implementation of a new food system. 
[...] During the first six years of Belo's 
food-as-a-right policy, perhaps in response to 
the new emphasis on food security, the number of 
citizens engaging in the city's participatory 
budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.

The city agency developed dozens of innovations 
to assure everyone the right to food, especially 
by weaving together the interests of farmers and 
consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens 
of choice spots of public space on which to sell 
to urban consumers, essentially redistributing 
retailer mark-ups on produce-which often reached 
100 percent-to consumers and the farmers. 
Farmers' profits grew, since there was no 
wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got 
access to fresh, healthy food.

In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city 
makes good food available by offering 
entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right 
to use well-trafficked plots of city land for 
"ABC" markets, from the Portuguese acronym for 
"food at low prices." Today there are 34 such 
markets where the city determines a set 
price-about two-thirds of the market price-of 
about twenty healthy items, mostly from in-state 
farmers and chosen by store-owners. Everything 
else they can sell at the market price.
"For ABC sellers with the best spots, there's 
another obligation attached to being able to use 
the city land," a former manager within this city 
agency, Adriana Aranha, explained. "Every weekend 
they have to drive produce-laden trucks to the 
poor neighborhoods outside of the city center, so 
everyone can get good produce."
Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is 
three large, airy "People's Restaurants" 
(Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, 
that daily serve 12,000 or more people using 
mostly locally grown food for the equivalent of 
less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in 
one, we saw hundreds of diners-grandparents and 
newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers 
with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street 
clothes, others in uniform, still others in 
business suits.
"I've been coming here every day for five years 
and have gained six kilos," beamed one elderly, 
energetic man in faded khakis.
"It's silly to pay more somewhere else for lower 
quality food," an athletic-looking young man in a 
military police uniform told us. "I've been 
eating here every day for two years. It's a good 
way to save money to buy a house so I can get 
married," he said with a smile.
No one has to prove they're poor to eat in a 
People's Restaurant, although about 85 percent of 
the diners are. The mixed clientele erases stigma 
and allows "food with dignity," say those 
Belo's food security initiatives also include 
extensive community and school gardens as well as 
nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal 
government contributes toward school lunches, 
once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys 
whole food mostly from local growers.

Residents of the Northern Hemisphere, dazed by 
decades of neoliberal propaganda about the 
inefficiencies of government, the futility of 
"welfare," and so on, may understandably be 
convinced that this food-rights programme must 
have foundered somewhat over the 15 years since 
its bold inception; or we may be tempted to 
conclude that it must be weighing down the city's 
finances unbearably by now.
The result of these and other related innovations?
In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant 
death rate-widely used as evidence of hunger-by 
more than half, and today these initiatives 
benefit almost 40 percent of the city's 2.5 
million population. One six-month period in 1999 
saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced 
by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo 
Horizonte was the only locality in which 
consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.
The cost of these efforts?
Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 
percent of the city budget. That's about a penny 
a day per Belo resident.

For a penny a day per person -- a whopping $3.65 
per year each -- a world-class city took 
meaningful, measurably successful steps towards 
the redefinition of food as a human right, the 
elimination of hunger among its poorest people, 
the promotion and availability of fresh and 
healthy food for everyone, and the revitalisation 
and ongoing support of local, small-scale 
agriculture. Rather than escalating the 
destructive practises of gargantuan-scale 
industrial farming and then distributing its 
inferior, malnutritious products as charity or 
welfare, Belo Horizonte made a courageous attempt 
to create a food economy that would meet the 
standards suggested by Carlo Petrini of the Slow 
Food Movement: good, clean, and fair. (Here's a 
video clip of Petrini explaining his standards 
and their implications.) As the Slow Food web 
site explains:

Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. We 
believe that the food we eat should taste good; 
that it should be produced in a clean way that 
does not harm the environment, animal welfare or 
our health; and that food producers should 
receive fair compensation for their work.

The city of Belo Horizonte, by boldly addressing 
food justice and food rights, has begun the 
process of guaranteeing every person acess to 
food that is good, clean, and fair. Their success 
vividly highlights the many failures -- 
nutritional, social, agricultural -- of our own 
industrial and wholly profit-oriented food 
system. It also suggests that our situation is 
far from hopeless. If we were to continue with 
business-as-usual, the future of food looks 
pretty dismal; but the documented productivity 
and sustainability of dense polyculture, plus the 
documented success of the food-as-a-civic-right 
policy implemented by Belo Horizonte, seem like 
very well-lit signage beckoning us to a safe exit 
from the ratcheting finger-trap of industrial 

Hunger is not inevitable. Factory farming is not 
inevitable. Low-quality, tasteless, contaminated 
food is not inevitable. Repeated "food scares" 
are not inevitable. Soaring public health costs 
are not inevitable. Another and better food 
system is eminently possible -- now, not ten 
years from now or after some promised, imaginary 
"scientific breakthrough". It is possible right 
now, today -- in our own backyard(s).
What are we waiting for?


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