Saturday, February 20, 2010

When "Food Futures" fail to focus on nature's past

I’ve been researching and reading several books on the topic of permaculture, agriculture, and ethnobotany. According to Bill Mollison’s (pictured) Permaculture Designer’s Manual, Permaculture is a form of permanent sustainable agriculture that aims to “foresee results or to design integrated systems” in accordance with their natural ecology. One could argue that anticipating outcomes is one thing modern Scientists endeavor to do best. Scientists specializing in Evolutionary Biology and Population Genetics*, spend their time delving into the unknowns of a tantalizing molecular world for answers to questions like: “How did organisms arise and proliferate?” “How are past and present organisms dispersed and distributed?” and “How did their operation in their past environments lead to their existence in current environments?” These scientists experiment with the genetics of model organisms to understand everything possible about them, to attain a seemingly unattainable knowledge from the past for the future. One could argue that this tinkering force, the quest for the truth for innovation, is a purely human attribute and is what has created powerful technologies and industrialized economies. I am not blaming these particular scientists for endeavoring this feat, but I take issue with the dissemination of knowledge about the genetics of organisms. I disagree with the way government, policy-makers, crop scientists, and engineers have used scientific knowledge and innovations to cater to an ever-excessive global demand for food resources.

I believe many species today are threatened by extinction or proliferating ruthlessly in part because of the human “intellectual conquest”. Humans have sent species spinning on an unforeseen evolutionary trajectory because of a hunger for knowledge and an uncontrollable need to tinker, to constantly experiment and manipulate the natural world. Inevitably, humans are enticed to create "good solutions" to bad solutions to na├»ve solutions for unforeseen, self-created problems. One frustrating example of this is the introduction of invasive species, many of which have been introduced as potential solutions to human errors or demands, and have responded by taking over key habitats and driving out native species. Another example is mono-crop agriculture, which I want to focus my attention on at the present. Mono-crop agriculture, as any good permaculturalist will attest, has ravaged soils and eroded land resources in many key agro-producing countries. I argue that the problem in the modern agricultural system lies in the lack of organismal diversity. Scientists, economists, commercial agriculturalists, and crop scientists don’t have to look far to realize that what they are constantly attempting to replicate is a success that already exists in the natural world. This success has been perpetuated for over a millennium through complex interactions between organisms within diverse environments.

The abstract of a recent article in Science caught my eye because it seemed to be focusing the gaze of agricultural science in a direction I could agree with. Entitled Smart Investments in Sustainable Food Production: Revisiting Mixed Crop-Livestock Systems (Herrero et al. 2010), this seemed like a paper I could sink my teeth into. Mistakenly, I took it for a science-clad and camouflaged version of a permaculture text. Instead, it was an article calling for increased policy and management for mixed-crop agricultural systems on small farm lands, which were not projected to be as mixed as I expected. Herrero and his collegues blame the governmental conduct, lack of federal aid, and political schemes for amplified worries about food security. Predominantly, the authors site a general “failure to appreciate the differences in diverse agricultural systems” as the cause of food scarcity and decreased crop-yields (Herrero et al. 2010). I agree heartily that governmental agencies and politicians in the U.S. not only neglect the small farmer, but also bow down to the large-scale commercial producers who benefit from the increasing urban demand for cheap food. Excitedly, I thought, “What we need is more than just an ‘appreciation’ for diversity, we need to put this idea into practice once and for all!” In an injured economy with a fast-growing population, the answer seems clear: modern agriculture must focus its attention on plant and animal diversity as it occurs naturally in forested environments.

As I read on, I became more discouraged by Herrero's article. What I expected was a message to the policy-makers to promote small-scale natural community farming and a call to the state’s Agricultural Department to relax their strongholds on subsidies and move away from their intoxicating relationship with corporate producers. As it turned out, the article was a weak message about mixing a few grain crops together, figuring out more efficient fertilization and watering methods for bigger crop yields, and deregulating research of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As I have already said, mixing crops is a good idea, but mixing needs to occur to a greater extent than 2-3 grain species. Secondly, fertilization already occurs naturally and efficiently, through nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants, decomposing organisms, and animal feces. In such a diverse, naturally fertile, and productive food-forest, precipitation also increases naturally. Finally, to suggest GMOs as a potential solution to viruses, pests, and diseases seems to me a proposition that is missing the point. Permaculturalists and other “synergistic gardeners”, such as Masanobu Fukuoka and Emilia Hazelip, have been saying for years that plants and animals act symbiotically within a naturally-rich, diverse environment to ward off pests and diseases. In an article regarding so-called mixed-crop agriculture and livestock, these scientists may like to focus their gaze a little more closely and perhaps take their own proposition more seriously. This type of sightless behavior reminds me of a passage I read in The Cosmic Serpent quoting the late Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu saying that, at times, answers can be found simply by "objectifying one's objectifying relationship" (Bourdieu). Becoming aware of their own words and focus, these scientists might actually realize that what the mixed system they are proposing is a watered-down version of a knowledge that indigenous peoples, small farmers, and permaculturalists have been using all along: in order to use mother nature's resources efficiently, one must follow her lead.


*I use Evolutionary Biologists and Population Geneticists as examples of scientists in this case not in an attempt to blame them specifically for the world's trouble, but only because it is the type of scientific study I'm most familiar with.

On a positive, less critical note: I've been sprouting tomatoes, romaine lettuce, marigolds, and garlic in the closet from seed (yikes!) and they are all doing well. More seeding and preparations tomorrow for the spring garden! Also, a couple of dominique layer chicks may be coming home to roost! The only buckets I can control are those that hold seed bombs, chicken feed, and fragrant soil. Spring can't grace me with it's bees and blossoms fast enough.