Permaculture and the Myth of Scarcity

This is the second article in our series by the speakers of Voices of Hope in a Time of Crises, a one-day event, which will explore localized solutions to our global problems and launch the International Alliance for Localization. Join the discussion on November 8th at The Cooper Union in New York City.

permacultureAt a conference a couple weeks ago, an activist who does work in Africa recounted an encounter she had with the minister of agriculture of a certain African country. The minister spoke with excitement about the high-tech agricultural technologies he was bringing into the country in partnership with large agribusiness companies, so the activist brought up the topic of organic agriculture. The minister said, “Stop. You don’t understand. We cannot afford such luxuries here. In my country, people are starving.”

This reflects a common conception about organic agriculture – that it sacrifices productivity in the interests of the environment and health. It stands to reason that if you forgo pesticides and chemical fertilizer, yields are going to suffer.

This, in fact, is a myth. In Sacred Economics I cite research showing that when it is done properly, organic growing methods can deliver two to three times the yield of conventional methods. (Studies showing the opposite are poorly constructed. Of course if you take two fields and plant each with a monocrop, then the one without pesticides will do worse than the one with, but that isn’t really what organic farming is.) Conventional agriculture doesn’t seek to maximize yield per acre; it seeks to maximize yield per unit of labor. If we had 10% of the population engaged in agriculture rather than the current 1%, we could easily feed the country without petrochemicals or pesticides.

It turns out, though, that my statistics are way too conservative. The latest permaculture methods can deliver much more than just double or triple the yield of conventional farming. I recently came across this article by David Blume chronicling his nine-year permaculture enterprise in California. Running a CSA for 300-450 people on two acres of land, he achieved yields eight times what the Department of Agriculture says is possible per square foot. He didn’t do it by “mining the soil” either – soil fertility increased dramatically over his time there.

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