Our community will be using the best practice of permaculture along with other naturally organic hi-tech systems. We recognise the importance of natural soil chemistry and the nutritional cycle we will make the most of every resource modern society sees as waste. So much about permaculture relates to efficient use recycled bio-mass and water pertaining specifically soil hydration.
Commercialized or industrial farming ignores much of the basic soil health principles and becomes locked in to highly inefficient water losses and massive synthetic fertilization. It does so for the sake of immediate profits to the detriment of soil health.
The UN recently released a report that recommends that permaculture is realistically the only way to sustainably feed the world. It suggests this for many reasons, not the least of which is the enormous distances food is transported to meet the needs of city dwellers and those within urban sprawl. Studies in the US (where industrial farming is at its peak) revealed food items travel as much as an astounding 2500 km to reach market. That’s a lot of fuel and CO2 emissions. This transportation situation has forced a number of practical and logistical problems onto the industry that have a detrimental effect on the harvested food and subsequently on human health.
The harvest must be made earlier – before the crop is ripe the fresh produce must be refrigerated throughout the transport cycle
The ripening process must be inhibited so as to ensure ‘freshness’ once the food item hits the supermarket shelf. This is achieved in some cases by “light” irradiation.
In some cases warehoused crops must then be pushed to ripen to make the product attractive to consumers. See ethylene
An enormous amount of food is lost during the transportation and selling process
Unsurprisingly the product you buy off the shelf has suffered considerably. While the product may look great (by virtue of modern technology), scientific studies of popular fruits are revealing that the item has lost much of its nutritional value! In fact modern commercial growing methods are estimated to have reduced fresh produce nutrients by over 70% compared to that of the 1950’s. It is not just the transportation issue that is causing this loss.
Farmers will tell you it’s all in the soil…
Soil health is paramount in the growing cycle. Commercial, especially industrial farming practices use enormous amounts of heavily processed fertilizer and of course fresh water. Without which the crops would simply not grow. The soil once exposed from natural plant cover has by itself has insufficient hydration, bio mass and natural chemistry to support the growth process. Heavy rainfall can wash top soil into rivers and leech fertilizer out of the soil. Flooding (often a direct result of poor land management) is even worse in that respect. The mass produced fertilizers are often inorganic and while they do work to assist a crop, they lack the broad range of essential elements needed to produce the nutrients we take for granted should be available in our food. In fact because nutrients degrade quickly (see the cation above) once the item is picked it is excellent motivation to encourage those of us who can to grow your own food items.
Nutritional values are not the only problem modern dietary science has uncovered.
Until recently and up to a point, consumers have accepted this trade-off in support of our heavily industrialized society’s need to feed “the nations”. The other great issue of industrial farming is the extremely toxic pesticides and fungicides which are clearly having a huge impact on human health. A growing body of credibly researched knowledge, evaluated by nutritionists, dietitians and health professionals is fueling genuine concern. Sadly these concerns are to a great extent being ignored by governments and the commercial farming industry. The consumer has not yet been appropriately educated on the true cost to our health.
Unnatural or inorganic substances are being discovered in our “fresh” food. Logic suggests this is attributable to the industrial pesticides. The cumulative affects on human health are escalating. There is mounting suspicion that industrial farming is a contributing factor in today’s endemic diseases such as cancer, which modern medicine is struggling to contain. There is also growing evidence that pesticides and fungicides are the root cause of bee deaths. These issues are bad enough in themselves and suggest we need to research the situation and urgently take remedial action. The five major producers Monsanto, Dow Chemicals, Bayer, Syngenta and BASF rule the narrative and are fighting tooth and nail to stop independent research being revealed, fearful of the public backlash. Permaculture farming is not immune to the pesticide issue, its produce also requires protection from pests. Its practice however, demands companion planting and far more natural pest avoidance creating a far healthier, nutritious and resilient harvest.
Permaculture addresses the predominant issue mankind MUST take note of in the most urgent manner – Fresh water. You will see in the table below; very little of the world’s water is in fact available to us at any given time. This is exacerbated by heavy concentration of farming areas, wherein an enormous load is placed on what was once fertile farm land with bountiful water. As our world climate changes, areas previously suitable for massive agricultural practice are now finding a serious shortage of fresh water available to support farming of an industrial nature.
There are many examples world wide but California is an excellent case in point. It’s an important example as this state IS the fresh produce and fruit basket of America. The importance of US food security is fast becoming a serious issue.
California’s farming industry has been using more water than is available from the water cycle for many years now. California farmers having been drawing from underground aquifers for a considerable period – these aquifers are running dry. The crisis is building, failing dams, reduced river flow exacerbated by reduced rainfall or drought.
In the case of California the argument is fast becoming academic. Like many areas around the world much of the river system is fed by mountain snow melt during the summer which has until recently has kept the rivers flowing. This resource is melting faster than the water cycle replaces it. There are two major factors at work that suggest existing farming practices are completely unsustainable even if the rain and snow returns due to the wasteful water usage and persistently greater demand. Industrial agricultural practice relies on water captured directly from the river systems where available and drawn up from aquifers where not. In some cases both. National Geographic’s documentary: Aftermath, clearly exposes the growing problem. It emphasizes population growth as the major factor – I contend that it is only a part of the problem. Until they implement sustainable water usage methods in both farming practice, energy production and city systems they are likely to realize the very worst that this documentary predicts.
The ground is insufficiently prepared to make the most of that water.
The industrial solution is to draw more water from any available source. In times of good precipitation supporting farming needs with aquifer irrigation was not seen as a problem. As long as sufficient snow fell in winter to replenish the river systems during summer, this practice was considered acceptable. While spray irrigation succeeds in wetting the surface it does not appropriately hydrate to any meaningful depth. This has a kick on effect as insufficient water (in the cycle) is unable to replenish the aquifers. Surface water is quickly evaporated back into the atmosphere – not enough however to form cloud cover. Combined with drought the lack of cloud cover the worse this vicious circle becomes.
Water was being drawn the aquifers at an irresponsible and irreplaceable rate even during the good times. Over the last five years California’s rainfall has diminished along with winter snowfall on the mountains, which are the rivers source. More water than ever has been drawn from the aquifers and they are becoming exhausted and increasingly expensive to tap. The river systems by themselves are now no longer capable of servicing the growing industry. The candle has been burning from both ends and the farmers, caught in the middle, are feeling the heat! Water wars threaten as cities demand more water and farmers seek legislation to protect their need for this vital resource. Fingers are being pointed in every direction; many blame urban development and it’s true, it is a factor… Others recognize the history of irresponsible planning practices and blame insufficient dams and catchment construction. Few place the blame squarely on the source of the problem… wasteful practices both within the farming communities and cities.
There is a great outcry for the urgent building of dams. Unfortunately Limnologists’ (water specialists) already recognise that while dams may provide temporary relief by themselves they are not a long term sustainable solution. It’s a question of basic arithmetic… the sums simply do not add up. Existing industrial farming practices can no longer be supported if they are to provide water to the city populations. This example is by no means confined to California – it is a world wide phenomenon.The map provided is from 2013 and it must be assumed the situation is worse today. So where to now?
Agroecology or Permaculture is the responsible solution
The simple solution for the farming community is advanced permaculture techniques and reevaluation of city use of this essential resource. You might think the improved harvest and food quality inherent to this system would be motivation enough to effect the change over within the corporate farming community. Unfortunately the methodologies that permaculture utilizes are not conducive to the practices and machines of present day industrialized farming. They too need to adapt to changing needs.
As these farming practices are for the most part embedded in corporate profit principles and these organisations control the narrative at planning level there is an enormous inertia to undertake meaningful change. If not, outright resistance at every level. Few within the water planning bureaucracy even understand permaculture and natural sequence farming principles. While many smaller farmers are beginning to recognize the improved principles of permaculture and natural sequence methodologies, investment in achieving the transition is a problem. Nonetheless a few are taking the plunge and reaping the benefits. There is some movement in the right direction. In the mean time, California’s water issues are mounting. Until the industrialized sector acknowledges the problem and stops pointing fingers in every direction but at themselves, no statewide resolution is in sight. The same is true for city water systems who are continuing to throw water down the drain at an ever increasing and phenomenal rate.
Where is our water: Credit – Hydrologic Data Collection inc
This article was prepared by Steve Wilkins in conjunction Jacques Damhuis: Permaculture Farmer at Positive Cycle