Plan your new decade as if you were planting a food forest
New year, new resolutions.
New decade, new perspectives.
It always amuses me to think that collectively we have one day of the year (or different days of the year, depending on your belief) to start over, and maybe offer a better version of ourselves from what we were the year before.
I love to have a moment to do a deeper review of the year that is about to end, even the challenging ones. It is like my yearly KonMari decluttering moment, of all aspects of my life. I like to prepare myself to start the following year with fresher eyes, clearer headspace and a neat vision of where to focus my energy on the following months.
And yes, as you might imagine, I use the permaculture evaluation questions to evaluate my year.
It goes like this:
And I add:
Yes, I know, I am a big planner, and love to have my things organized too. I Looove processes, and what I love even more is to put them into action and see them coming out of my head to the physical realm.
But the funny thing is, even if we are more prone to think about the process first and then move to action or prone to do the action first and then think about it later. One thing is important to be clear at. Your vision! Even if it is a blurry one.
Importance of being clear in your vision
2019 was a challenging year for many, and 2020 started with some tough struggles, like unprecedented wildfires in Australia and potential war in Iran, for starters, threatens by the Brazilian government to allow mining in protected indigenous land.
A clear vision or a clear direction of where you want to go or do, combined with why you are taking this decision, will support you continue to follow your direction, even in challenging times, to be creative about it, even when you feel blocked.
“Who does not know what he is looking for will not understand what he finds.” Claude Bernard
This quote was on the first page of the physiology book I used to study from in my first years in medical school. For my own sake, I would rephrase it like this:
“Those who do not know what they are looking for will not understand what they find.”
A little break to deconstruct patriarchy is always good. Anyway, back to 2020.
The thing is, you don’t need to be a scientist to look for something. We are always looking for something. Something that can be as concrete as an object to fulfill a function (or many functions), or things more subtle, like a meaning, a supportive community, or an inspiration for defining your resolutions for the new year and the new decade that are about to start.
When I talk about vision, I talk about a direction of a path to be taken. It can change along the way, no problem, but if you don’t sketch a map, you don’t understand where you are going, and when or where you want to change your course, and if you want to change it or not.
To make a clear vision of where I want to do is to reclaim my responsibility for my decisions, about my life. Even if my decisions depend on others or impact others directly.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of people getting hesitant when talking about defining a vision, taking a decision, or making clear a goal. Often these concepts are linked to expectations and expectations tend to lead to frustrations… and some people are afraid of facing frustration, especially in an era of instant gratification at all costs (but this discussion I will continue in another moment).
Let me tell you, frustration is part of the process, you just need to learn how to deal with them. They are not always obstacles, they can be a slow down moment to think creatively from another perspective. And even an opportunity to find out something even better in the first place. And another opportunity to exercise permaculture lenses: The problem is the solution.
Nonetheless, if you know where you are going, or what you are looking for, you are going to find the energy to take a deep breath and face it from another angle. Or take a break, recharge, recenter and start over. Life is all about cycles, remember? And you will continue your journey.
So, what do you want for your new decade?
Make it clear for yourself and share it with the people around you that you feel safe with. Sometimes, speaking from the heart to people we trust helps us to see our own raw vision from a new perspective and make it even more accurate. Practice it.
Remember, set your intentions, practice your authenticity, be clear with your vision and why you are taking this direction. And make yourself prepared to take a leap. It might be a quantum one.
Ok, but what about the Food Forest you mention?
Nature is an infinite source of inspiration, and a Forest is the ultimate climax of that expression. We are Nature and we too often forget about, what if we bring it closer to us more and more until we don’t forget anymore?
Besides the plants I cultivate, I also like to look at projects as if they were like plants. Plants that represent a complex system itself, with their own growing rhythm, cycles, indicators, medicines, potential poisons, and beauty.
Like plants, I tend to design my projects placing them in a larger system, like a forest, so they can interact with one another. Even if the only thing they have in common is me.
If you are new to the term Food Forest. Here is one definition of it: Food Forest is a low-maintenance, very resilient, plant-based food production, based on woodland ecosystems, incorporating its many layers in space and time. These systems are also more resistant to extremes of temperature and droughts periods. This kind of production, also known as agroforestry, creates a more stable environment in its surroundings, maintains the soil healthy and protects biodiversity beyond its limits. Cool, huh?
In order to design a Food Forest, you need to understand the kind of plants that you would like to cultivate and look for ways of how to take the concept of companion plants to the next level. Companion plants are the plant combinations that protect one another as they grow. They might protect each other from predators, or sectors like wind or too much sun, for example. They potentialize one another in their development. And this is the classical example of synergic relationships, where 1 + 1 is more than 2 like Fukuoka used to say.
These synergic relationships are going to build up resilience in the system, and with time more complexity, more diversity, and more regeneration are created within it and around this forest, or your life, if your design in these terms.
So why not create more synergy between your projects and with your new year’s resolutions for the next decade?
Thinking about Layers and Associations:
In a Food Forest, you are going to think about plants as systems inside of a larger system, as I mentioned. In which each element (plant) have their own cycle, different needs (sun exposure, shade, wind, water, kind of soil), maturation time, harvesting time, interactions with animals, are a few examples of aspects to think of.
In order to keep it more simple, without losing the richness of its complexity. You are going to divide the plants into layers. Layers of space, time and function.
Thinking about your projects: Observe the peculiarities and similarities of your projects. Each one of them has a different time of development, maintenance, and harvesting too, no? So, create more synergy between them, and make them visible to you! Besides creating more synergy between them, you will learn to see your human energy flow (motivation, transportation, for example) globally and how to optimize your energy in each one of them and combined.
When you make these invisible connections more visible to you, you start to be more accurate in your observations and how to communicate them. With time you learn to regenerate more energy and resources around yourself and in your life.
Layers in Space:
The layers in a Food Forest can be divided in many ways. I choose to use 9 for my example here:
Taller trees Layer (Nut trees & tall fruit trees like chestnut, black walnut, pecan); Smaller trees Layer (Smaller fruit trees like apple, apricot, pear); Shrubs Layer (Currants, berries, roses); Herbaceous Layer (Nettles, Most vegetables); Groundcover Layer (Clover, spinach, comfrey); Vine (or Vertical) Layer (Grapes, Kiwi, squash, melons); Root Layer (Carrots, daikon, beets); Fungi Layer (Mushrooms) and Wetland Layer (Reeds).
When you think about the layers in space, you are going to think more about the physical aspects of the plants and sectors on the land like sunlight, shade, wind, animal’s path, view, noise, people’s path. At this moment, you also need to make sure to place the plants with enough space between them once they are fully grown, so they will have enough space to spread their wings, I mean, branches.
A tall tree might provide structure and shade to other plants, but they take long time to grow. During their growth, it may be important to protect it from strong winds with some scrubs and break the soil with the strong root plants for future cultivation without using machinery.
The idea is to look at them as an entire system and see how to support the collaboration between them to keep them happy and healthy, and more autonomous in keeping away pests, for example.
Layers in Time:
The plants grow in various rhythms. Plan your forest (and your life) with its cycles, seasons, an ongoing process of life-death-rebirth. Keeping the soil healthy and plant-harvest-seed all year long. Keep the slow growers (tall trees/ long term projects) healthy as they grow. Compost continuously, keep the pollinators happy.
Identify which plants that are going to be permanent to the system, and which are plants that going to be in between cycles. Care from the big patterns of your deign into details of it.
Remember forests don’t create waste! They also buffer the impact of intense changes in temperature, absorb atmospheric carbon, clean water and develop more biodiversity.
Looking at your life and your projects as a forest might allow you to avoid creating waste, it might allow you to make you more resilient to changes, keeping yourself healthy and supportive to a transition to a more regenerative culture in your life and around you.
Each plant will present many functions and will present different needs. Make sure to combine plants from different families together, avoid monoculture style, to not deplete the soil and to not make the plants more susceptible to pests.
“Some pests find food by the chemicals produced by the host plant. If you plant lots of the same type of vegetables together (as a monoculture) them the chemical signal is much stronger. This means you attract more pest.” (Ross Mars, 1996).
In order to better integrating all these concepts of the food forest design and designing your new decade resolutions in a more concise way. I made you a drawing of how I see many of the parallels between them, and as a transition to a healthier life, building up to a regenerative culture. This is why I called my drawing: Food Forest design is Health design.
In the picture above I illustrated some of the concepts of thinking about the layers of space, time and function combined. And of course, they are an interpretation, and interpretations are subjective.
In order to make this drawing more practical, I made a table to share a few of the parallels that I made between the food forest design and new your decade, planning to a more regenerative future. Here:
Here you see that I put together some concepts of different layers, like substituted the shrub layer and herbaceous layer (space layers) with the perennial and annual plants (time layers), since some perennial plants that are herbaceous and shrubs. But I thought it would be more didact.
I also added the layer of medicinal plants (functional layers), and I wanted to emphasize the distinction of self-preservation, self-care and work on oneself. I really wanted to highlight the layers of a forest that exist to always care for the system (the forest) and its elements (plants/animals/resources).
I think these are important aspects we need to learn how to implement in our society to transit to a regenerative future. Learn to care for ourselves, our relationships and our community simultaneously and continuously taking in consideration all the relationships, in a collaborative way.
So, think about your life, your projects, your activities, your resources thinking about a food forest. Look at them thinking about layers of space, time and function. Create more synergy between them, compost regularly, work on yourself, care for your family and community, breathe, dance, meditate, take good care of yourself.
Take one step a time, but don’t lose perspective, remember your vision, keep track of your map!
Ow, and I almost forgot! I wish you an amazing new year and a new decade full of new learnings, collaborations, and nature regeneration!
Together, we thrive!
1- Mars R. The Basics of Permaculture Design. Australia: Permanent Publications; 1996.
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In early spring, mud has replaced the mostly melted snows, the rain and sunshine exchange places every couple hours, and the moles’ work of winter tunnel building is evident everywhere…signs that Spring is gracefully awakening after a year of rest.
I’m not much of a poet or creative writer but the seasonal changes bring out the philosopher in me. For a gardener, Spring carries the hope and excitement of change and renewal much like a new year inspires personal development goals.
Standing in my large four-legged-proofed vegetable garden in the early morning light, I survey the space that was abandoned after the first heavy snowfall. After several years of dealing with gophers in my raised beds, mole tunnels everywhere else, rabbit holes in my deer fencing and half-finished projects in every direction, I feel a sense of relief that the gophers, deer, and rabbits have been redirected through the magic of barriers. My garden is now a fortress for flora: 8 ft tall deer fencing, the bottom two feet wrapped in rabbit-proof wire fencing, and concrete mesh in the bottom of my raised beds. The half-finished projects are part of the way I garden and this year is no different: two hugelkultur beds to extend and improve, paths to cover with the free tree trimmings dumped in my pasture last fall, non-stop compost making, continued planting for pollinators, and creative ideas for an edible/medicinal hedgerow that will also serve as a windbreak and this year — more flowers!
I feel my brain kick into check-list mode: check the fall-planted garlic, peek in at the perennial rhubarb and asparagus covered in straw mulch, clean and organize the greenhouse for seed starting and retrieve the wheelbarrows and hoses from the barn.
And check the weather. Daily. Spring is a tempestuous season offering sun, rain, hail, snow, late frosts, and wind — sometimes all in one day!
At this point, a non-gardener might close the gate, head back into the house and wonder about the sanity of those who grow plants. Excitement and optimism fuel my energy and grabbing a garden fork, I lightly turn over the straw on my garlic beds and ponder the question of why I garden. What is the impetus for motivating me into spending 5–20 hours each week planning, shoveling, bending, seeding, weeding, watering and transporting wheelbarrows full of horse shit, compost, and soil all over my property?
Motivation defined: Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal.
Sure enough, my motivation for growing includes a mix of internal and external factors.
Nutritious, Clean and A Variety of Foods
I grow a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, flowers, native plants, and medicinal herbs. Food cannot get any fresher and more nutritious than when it is pulled from the garden, walked up to the kitchen and cooked for dinner. Much of store-bought produce is almost a week into decaying by the time it is placed for display in grocery stores, and some plants like spinach have already lost 50% of its nutrients through the natural process of dying.
In addition to freshness and nutrition, my gardens are 100% organic so I can avoid exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides. And I love the option to explore unusual fruits and vegetable cultivars that are not available in grocery stores: purple vegetables, seaberries, Dragon Tongue greens, and basils of many flavors. There is never enough growing space for all that I want to grow…which my middle-aged body says is probably a good thing.
All Things Herbs
Because they are incredibly easy to grow, perennial culinary herbs were some of my first growing successes almost forty years ago. I love the fresh leaves of basil, sage, thyme, oregano, savory, parsley, and cilantro. I dry large amounts of herbs for winter’s use in teas and cooking — if harvested, dried and stored correctly, the quality and retention of flavor cannot be beaten.
Over the last two decades, I have studied herbal medicine and now grow far more healing herbs to make nourishing infusions, medicinal teas, healing salves, facial creams, lotions, and body butters. My home apothecary is full of herbal remedies, and I love that feeling of abundance and usefulness. (Just this morning, a friend contacted me about herbs and remedies I might have for shingles — community herbalism at its best!) By growing my own herbs and making my own personal products, I avoid toxic residues and synthetic petrochemicals found in most commercial body care products.
I also use fresh and dried herbs to make gallons of an effective and non-toxic cleaning solution. I play around with natural plant dyes to dye wool and silk. Flowers, herbs and even collard greens create a beautiful bouquet that I spend way too much time arranging in a vase which then sits on my dining room table. (Psst…please don’t tell the vegetables but herbs have my heart, and I enjoy growing them tremendously!)
These days I spend a lot of time sitting at my computer researching and writing for work and creative projects. In case you haven’t heard, sitting is the new smoking: our bodies are designed to move regularly. Gardening offers me a natural way for my body to move. It’s not aerobic; it’s more like a clunky yoga flow. I am conscious of my body as it bends or stretches and often while there working on a bed of plants, I casually move into a yoga pose, stretching and activating muscles. (Visualize butt in the air, doing downward dog and for balance practice, Warrior 3 while planting seeds.) I revel in both the energy of movement and later, that bone-tired exhaustion felt at the end of a long day spent moving in the garden.
According to the US Center for Disease Control, there is plenty of research that supports the benefits of moving frequently and regularly:
Add some aerobic activity three or four times a week, some strength conditioning, a few focused weekly yoga sessions and you will be in good shape.
Intimacy With Nature
The early morning hours of spring and summer are special. I am fortunate to live on five acres, surrounded by towering Doug-firs and Ponderosa pines. After winter’s silence, the birds are chattering, flirting non-stop in search of spring romance. Stellar jays are the noisiest, robins’ songs come in second, and the occasional woodpecker pecking on nearby trees is nature’s Morse Code. A raven pair fly over and occasionally treat me to some romantic dancing in the sky. And I swear they just cawed good morning to me! The squirrels and chipmunks squeal warnings as I walk through their territory. Bending over to check on some seedlings, I hear the unmistakable whistle-call of a red-tail hawk. As the growing season moves along, I’ll encounter earthworms, spiders, lesser-eared lizards, an eclectic group of pollinators and engage in my annual disagreement with aphids. Watching the pollinators work the garden has opened a door of curious questions about the fascinating behaviors of insects and bugs.
Growing plants is a remarkable opportunity to fully appreciate nature and its complexities. Witnessing a plant’s life cycle is a humbling and sacred experience: seeds germinate, stems push up through the soil, leaves unfurl, flower buds open into flowers, flowers become fruits and fruits dry out to release seeds for the next generation.
The science of biology has acknowledged that our brains are wired for connection with nature, and studies have shown that time spent in nature benefits our brains and our stress levels. In an ego-centric culture like ours, I feel my focus shift to the garden ecosystem that is alive with the activity of others.
Love of Learning
Speaking of brains, learning and problem-solving are activities that keep our neural networks humming. Too many people tend to drop active and intentional learning after they leave formal schooling. Growing plants is filled with lessons to be learned, research to be done and problems to be solved.
I am hooked on the act of learning. I welcome lessons in all of their intentional and unintentional packages. Four decades ago, the world of plants opened my mind to a state of constant curiosity. With over 400,000 identified plant species, their individual and purposeful niches in our ecosystems, their unique relationships with pollinators, their generous offerings to humans and now their attempts to adapt to climate changes, I will never run out of things to learn.
During the past few years, I have studied the design system thinking of permaculture, incorporating some of its basic concepts and ideas into my garden as well as other aspects of my life. Permaculture design has introduced a new way of thinking about not only the garden and nature but also about the cultural constructs of economies and communities. My learning has evolved as I consider the basic principles inherent to permaculture. The hundreds of chicory plants growing in my unused pasture offer food for thought about their purpose and contributions instead of a complaint about weeds. Instead of arguing with aphids each year, what are some companion plants I could use to confuse or deter them? Growing food and medicine sets up a different kind of personal economy and one that offers autonomy and wellness benefits.
Tending plants is a practice, a science and an art. It’s chock full of learning opportunities. And of course, the study of herbalism offers humans a lens on the individual magical healing gifts of plants. The hours of my days are spent learning about the natural and cultivated worlds of plants, animals, and people. I can’t imagine how anyone can be bored when there is so much to know about these worlds.
Creativity in our culture is not valued as much as our work ethic or our skills. As children, we explore our creative natures but slowly that is replaced with the busyness of achievement tasks and the business of skill-learning. Many of us enter adulthood with the notion that only creative people get to do creative things and that’s only because they are good at it. Somewhere many of us learned that we were no longer creative.
My vegetable and herb gardens are truly a palette that I design and create with plants of differing sizes, colors, and shapes. Sometimes I employ logic and design aesthetics; other times the plant goes where it does because it’s the only spot open. My garden looks different every year as I explore new projects and plants. Like all creative processes, there are learning opportunities (AKA as mistakes) and there are amazing successes. Then, one day in late summer, I look around and see another masterpiece I have created.
Each hour I spend in the garden is income for me: I don’t sell what I grow but I don’t buy much during the growing season. When I do buy fresh produce in the months I don’t grow, I easily spend $150-$200 per month on fruits and vegetables. Of course, my garden fortress has an abundance of infrastructure and occasional inputs like commercial compost so I’ll stop here with my garden economics because I don’t want to know what my actual hourly wage is for my garden efforts. Ignorance can be bliss sometimes.
Besides, how do I measure the value of food security, useful knowledge and skills, daily time in nature, healthy food and herbal remedies, physical movement and intellectual activity? The garden economy is filled with benefits that simply can’t be measured by the Gross Domestic Product or an hourly wage.
As much I enjoy my time gardening, I experience conflicts throughout the growing season. I live in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States — a region filled with amazing geography, incredible vistas, waterfalls, rivers, rainforests, high desert, mountains, coastal beaches, and diverse ecosystems — and I feel the call to hike, fish, and camp during the seasons of warmth and blooming native plants. It’s difficult to escape for a few days, much less a week when the garden needs harvesting and the food and herbs need processing.
I have many interests and hobbies; this is a bigger problem then you may realize. Unfinished craft projects, stacks of books to be read, writing projects to be completed, and lists of goals, and tasks that often get shoved to the side during the growing season. For many years, I would become frustrated with myself for not getting more done during the summer…acting as if I was wasting time in the garden! It took a while for me to come to terms with this addiction to productivity, this need to always be producing something.
One year I worked as a gardener for a winery and learned a bit about the wine crush. Like vegetables, the grapes ripen over a short period and must be quickly crushed, properly processed, tested and monitored. Vegetable and herb gardening is similar; while some of what I grow is harvested and eaten regularly throughout the season, a big chunk of what I grow ripens in August and September and needs to be processed for winter storage.
I garden solo and at some point each season, usually around late August, I feel overwhelmed by all of the bounty heaped on my kitchen counters and floors. In the last few years that emotional response shows up in conjunction with several days in a row of 100° temps. Excessive heat means extra watering, early harvest and additional protection above and beyond the daily garden chores and my professional responsibilities.
Adding to the abundance overwhelm are my beloved herbs: harvesting, hanging, processing, packaging, labeling and storing take up additional summer and fall hours.
Resentment brews on the back burner. Wildflowers are blooming on my favorite trail. Someone posted a beautiful trout they caught at a nearby river. A friend just posted pics of her hikes in the Olympic National Park. I can get a tad whiny as I mumble to myself about what I am missing or that I would rather be lounging on the deck, chilled beverage and a good book in hand. Part of the solution turned out to be uncomplicated: simply pack my daypack and head to the forest or the river and just hike or fish for the morning or even the day. The vegetables and herbs will still be there when I return…perhaps a bit riper.
Oh, The Heartbreak…
You can’t avoid it: nature has a way of reminding you who’s in charge and it’s not you. Weirdly, the stages of grief can be applied to the occasional heartbreak moments in a garden. Am I being a drama queen? I don’t think so. Here are some of my more recent moments of gardening’s tragic dramas:
When I spend three months germinating seed, tending seedlings, transplanting, watering, weeding and then walk out to my garden on a beautiful July morning and see two holes where plants existed the night before, I get a bit crazy. Gophers! In denial and hopeful they have moved on, I return the next morning and see two more holes. Now angry, I realize there’s not much I could do at this point. They had a daily buffet of my vegetables for the rest of the season. It was heartbreaking and infuriating.
Those cute little cottontail rabbits? Not so cute as they demolish the lettuce beds, chew holes in my plastic mesh deer fencing and invite their friends to join them each morning.
I never understood why Elmer Fudd was so angry at rabbits but I do now.
While only 3% of insects are troublesome, that 3% can do some serious damage when they discover a vegetable garden. Aphids are my nemeses and seem to show up when I take a few days off for a weekend trip.
Several years ago, after applying copious amounts of my neighbor’s beautifully composted horse manure, several of my crops began to look sick. I spent many hours trying to figure out what was happening, coming up empty. Eventually, another gardener who had used the same horse manure reported a similar experience in her orchard, where she had applied the manure around her trees. She had her soil tested and the results showed a high level of a herbicide residue. The hay my neighbor purchased to feed her horses, had been contaminated by what the hay grower believed must have been drift from another grower’s spraying. This herbicide is not affected by the horse’s digestive system and takes years to break down so it continues to do its job by killing plants when applied as compost in gardens. My neighbor felt terrible but we were all victims of what is becoming a more frequent issue for gardeners.
When you have invested time, energy, money and patience in a part of your life, it becomes a relationship and the emotions are similar to those experienced with any relationship. Each summer I build a relationship with my plants and my soil and like all relationships, there are moments of pain and heartbreak.
Still, I can’t imagine my life without my garden…except maybe in late August. I could imagine it then.
Growing Food and Medicine: The Good, The Bad and The Heartbreak was originally published in PermacultureWomen on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Small-scale farmers — not lab-based foods — can help save the planet
George Monbiot’s recent article in which he celebrates the rise of lab-based foods and the end of the agrarian age is highly problematic. It ignores social scientific and scientific research about agricultural systems and minimizes the practices and struggles of small-scale, organic farmers. His position also represents a confusing departure from his recent critiques of the capitalist system.
The global agriculture system is currently dominated by an industrial-capitalist model that is incredibly damaging to non-human nature, brutal to both wild and domesticated animals, exploitative of workers, small farmers, and peasants, and neo-colonialist in its approach to Indigenous people and poor rural people.Over the past few decades there has been a consolidating of power and control in the food system into the hands of a small group of agro-chemical corporations, something that has been facilitated by governments especially those in the Global North and international bodies such as the WTO. People concerned with climate change, environmental degradation, defaunation of wildlife, abuse of animals, worker and farmer exploitation, and colonialism should oppose industrial-capitalist agriculture and work towards dismantling it as the dominant model of agriculture.
The type of high-tech, venture capitalist-backed lab foods advocated by Monbiot represents an intensification of the industrial capitalist food system and a move towards further consolidation of power in the hands of a few corporations. Monbiot realizes this is a risk and advocates for a decentralization of this new system of lab foods. However, in the actually-existing world, this is not what is happening or will happen. This is because lab-based foods will require a huge amount of capital investment. Food will essentially be created in lab-factory hybrids which, to build at a scale to feed 7 to 9 billion people, will be incredibly resource intensive. Already, this emerging industry is being supported by venture capitalists, and other tech optimists, who believe firmly that high-tech capitalism will save humanity and the Earth. Of course those of us with a critique of capitalism know that the system is about wealth accumulation and private profit, not about feeding people or regenerating the Earth. In fact, we currently grow more than enough food for the world’s population. People starve to death and face chronic malnutrition not due to lack of food but due to the cruelty of the capitalist system (for a incisive critique of the industrial-capitalist food system, please see the work of Dr. Tony Weis).
In all likelihood, with the requirement to provide profits for corporations and capitalists, lab created foods will either be a novelty food item for the rich, a cheap food item for the poor, or, perhaps most likely, fodder for industrially-farmed animals ( this debate at a Conscious Eating conference about lab meats highlights this, and other, concerns). High-tech venture capitalism has represented a further commodification of all aspects of human and non-human life, to the extreme detriment of humans and the Earth. This can be seen in the ways in which Airbnb has increased housing insecurity in cities around the world, and the ways in which Uber has created an overworked, underpaid, vulnerable workforce, while also increasing the number of cars on the road. The promises made by these corporations and capitalists have not come to fruition, instead they represent neo-liberalism on steroids.
The creation of any new technology on a mass scale will require the growth of extractive industries to gather the raw materials for the building of factories, machinery, and other physical capital. For some technology, this may be necessary to move humanity off of fossil fuels. For example, a massive growth in solar power technology may be justifiable. However, when there are millions of small-scale farmers, peasants, Indigenous people, and gardeners growing food in ecologically regenerative ways, the environmental risks posed by the scale of technology required to feed billions of people lab food is indefensible. Monbiot sees his advocacy for lab-based food as a way to allow vast amounts of land to be rewilded. However, the extraction of resources to build huge lab-factories (which he argues should occur in deserts) not to mention the distribution of that food, would further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, destroy ecosystems, kill wild animals, and drive rural and Indigenous people off the land.
In contrast, if most of the Earth’s people move to a plant-based diet in which the consumption of animal products and flesh, when it occurs, is peripheral we can feed the current and future projected population on less land than is currently farmed. As many studies, scholars, and activists have pointed out, a large amount of arable land is currently devoted to growing food for farmed animals not people (see “ Ecological Hoofprint “ for information about the environmental impact of industrial livestock agriculture). Further, if we transform the global agricultural system so it is not controlled by a small handful of corporations and capitalists, all people on Earth can eat a nutritious, culturally appropriate, and ecologically regenerative diet.
I imagine Monbiot might interject with the claim that he is not advocating for a capitalist model of lab-based food but for a democratic, decentralized, possibly co-operative model. I support the nurturing of the radical imagination, which does entail pondering what could be, not only what is. However, I do not see anything hopeful about Monbiot’s vision.
Many Indigenous peoples practiced agriculture and horticulture using innovative methods that enabled human agriculture to be mostly regenerative of the systems of the Earth. These methods continue to be used and expanded in innovative ways, even in the face of brutal systems of colonialism. The growth of agroecology, a philosophy and method of farming in which farmers work to regenerate natural ecosystems, presents a glimpse into how we can feed billions of people without destroying the Earth. Depending on how the term is defined, agroecology includes Indigenous farmers, ecological farmers, small-scale organic farmers and permaculture practitioners. It is a living and vibrant movement. Its practitioners face immense opposition from their own governments, neo-liberal trade organizations, and agrochemical corporations but, in spite of this, persevere. For example, the peasant and small-farmer organization represents one of the largest and most transformative social movements on Earth.
In order for Monbiot’s full vision for lab-based food to be enacted, these people would have to be removed from the lands they nurture. Peasants, Indigenous farmers, and other small-scale farmers would have to be relocated and the land “rewilded” with minimal human activity (certainly not agriculture or horticulture). As has happened for decades, rural people would be forced into the slums of cities.
Lab-based foods also presents a vision in which people at the regional, neighbourhood, and household-scale are not able to grow or produce food needed to adequately feed themselves. If large lab-factories (situated in the deserts of the earth, already vulnerable and rich ecosystems) dominated the food system, what would happen if those labs were destroyed by extreme weather or acts of war or faced technological failure? The industrial-capitalist food system, which relies on vast monocultures dominated by one crop, is already highly vulnerable to climate breakdown. A lab-based food system would be even more vulnerable. If humans lost farming and gardening skills and knowledges, we would be left unable to feed ourselves if the lab-based food system failed or was destroyed.
To me, the most hopeful symbol for feeding a world of billions in the face of climate change is not lab-based foods, but open-pollinated, organic seeds in the hands of farmers, gardeners, and other seed-savers. People are growing food in ways that are healing to the Earth and ourselves, even in the face of climate breakdown. What farmers need most is for environmentalists and other eaters to support their struggles not to be seduced by the promises of tech bros.
Originally published at https://permacultureforthepeople.org on January 10, 2020.
Small-scale farmers — not lab foods — can help save the planet was originally published in PermacultureWomen on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
via PermacultureWomen - Medium https://medium.com/permaculturewomen/small-scale-farmers-not-lab-foods-can-help-save-the-planet-d752d4b4c162?source=rss----c21e0e274675---4
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