Ecological food systems
Written by Trent Rhode
Before we look at these solutions, what exactly is meant by unsustainable? Well, the evidence is in the market. Food prices went up 7.4 per cent from 2008 to 2009, according to Stats. Canada, and there is no sign of this trend slowing down.
Indeed, with fertilizer, water, electricity, fuel and livestock feed prices skyrocketing, it’s likely we’ll be feeling the effects of acollapsing agriculture system much sooner than most people realize (for example, fertilizer prices went up 60 per cent in 2008 alone).
What exactly is the problem here? Besides the obvious surface problems, many people believe a fundamental shift must occur in the way we design (or fail to design) our life support systems (such as our food system).
Designer and architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart noted in their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, that we are accustomed to thinking of industry (e.g. industrial agriculture) and the environment as being at odds with one another.
But McDonough asks, “What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”
McDonough has designed many completely non-toxic, infinitely recyclable and biodegradable products, from chairs to whole buildings, which back up his optimism of such a society being possible.
The problem, when it comes to food, is that we don’t think of a farm as an ecosystem, and we don’t design them as such. Even conventional organic farms lack the stability of a healthy, permanent ecosystem, and they usually require many outside inputs (such as fossil fuels and organic matter) that are fundamentally unsustainable.
Soil is life
Although climate change, unpredictable oil, natural gas and fertilizer supplies are ahuge concern in maintaining our food systems, the issue of soil erosion in modern agriculture goes largely unnoticed. To create a permanent food system, however, we need soil. Permanently.
Our current system’s reliance on a fragile, fossil fuel-centered supply chain to fertilize, toxify (with pesticides and herbicides), transport, store, and package food is the least of our concerns.
How about the fact that about 40 per cent of the world's agricultural land is now seriously degraded? According to the UN, an area of fertile soil the size of Ukraine is lost every year because of poor farming practices. And it’s happening in Canada too.
To put it bluntly, a new system of agriculture is needed to prevent mass starvation.
Imagine a different food scenario, for a moment. Imagine a system that uses vertical space, like a forest, to achieve higher yields. Imagine all of the species in the system, from forest canopy, to understory, to shrubs, vines, smaller plants, ground covers and roots, all yielding food and/or medicine.
Then, imagine your favourite foods interspersed among garden clearings in this edible wilderness, receiving nutrients, protection from wind and pests, mulch, minerals, and everything else they need from the companion trees and plants around them. Imagine a food forest. These forests exist.
Natural forests build organic matter very quickly, not only protecting soil from erosion, but actually building it. Their biomass yields are far beyond a modern farm system, and what’s more, we can (and do) mimic them, but with species yielding edibles and medicinals. And we can do it in the city.
There are even options for large scale industrial systems, which can employ alley cropping techniques that are being researched at the University of Guelph and many other places around the world. This involves planting valuable tree and other perennial crops in rows, with traditional or new crop choices in the alleys between for mechanical harvesting.
How it works
Ecologically designed food systems typically use a diversity of perennial tree and non-woody crops, which provide permanent cover and protection from erosive wind and water forces.
At the same time, this diversity leads to many root depths, shapes and sizes, which stabilizes the soil and improve its structure, while minimizing competition. This fosters better water penetration (which prevents erosive runoff), and allows more oxygen into the soil, both of which feed the life of the soil, which in turn feeds the life of the plants.
Woody and non-woody perennials also have deeper root systems than annuals, which means they have a lot more potential for capturing and recycling nutrients.
Their litter contribution to the soil’s surface is also typically much greater than traditional crops (which still have a place). This free mulch is then slowly broken down by decomposers (insects, worms, bacteria, fungus) into soluble plant nutrients. On top of this, these decomposers are the nutrients, and their life and death cycles make these nutrients available to plants consistently over time.
Other management practices in a sustainable food system that decrease the erodibility of the soil include no-till practices and the absence of heavy machinery, especially when the soil is wet. This lessens compaction (which decreases water infiltration and increases erosive runoff), and helps maintain ideal soil structure for root growth and health.
Creating a balance
The concepts and principles outlined here are only a glimpse of the complex interactions and forces at play in an ecologically designed food system, and ecological principles can be used on any scale.
Given that resources are not infinite, and many are quickly running out (like our soil, our fertilizers, and our main energysources), it might be wise for us to think about learning to design systems to grow at least some of our own food within urban areas. And while we’re at it, we’ll be creating a world that not only supports life, but gives meaning to it.
Our goal, as McDonough puts it, should be “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”
Trent Rhode is a permaculture gardener, designer, teacher, and researcher living in Peterborough, Ontario. He has a background and education in communications and sustainable land use practices, and has been studying ecology and natural farming since 2004.