Photo © Craig Mackintosh
People keep telling me that gardens and micro farms are cost inefficient and fail to feed society. Sometimes this information is delivered loudly and firmly with great emphasis on profit, and great personal attachment to the idea of its being true. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about how modern chemical agriculture feeds the world. This is to be expected because so few people are even beginning to understand the complexity of the relationships between bacteria, fungi, and plants that create living soil. Less than 1% of the organisms in living soil have been identified and named let alone given any study for us to begin to grasp their roles. This frontier is just opening up in science right now. The reason it wasn’t studied earlier was the myth that NPK — Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium — were all that was needed to grow plants. Modern agriculture is based entirely on this myth. You can grow plants that way for a number of years, so long as you can afford the fossil fuels to do it and you don’t mind the lack of nutrients in your food, however, there are two catches.
The first catch is that the N, P, and K are stabilized in salt and watered into the soil. A normal plant in healthy soil chooses which nutrients it needs from a long, long list and does starch exchanges at the hair root level with the bacteria and fungi who are dealing in that necessary nutrient. Plants have no choice but to drink water. So, when NPK based fertilizers are applied to the big mono crops, the plants are force fed those fertilizers through salt and watering until they become so bloated (more pounds = more money) that they are like beacons for pests, fungus, and weeds.
Then comes the second catch. The farmers must throw on massive amounts of insecticide, fungicide, and herbicide to try and help their very weak but large crops survive what would have been their natural demise. Think about that for a minute…. The companies that are creating and profiting from crops that attract pests, fungus and weeds, are also profiting from the sale of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to manage those problems that they exacerbate. All of these poisons kill the living organisms in the soil. Those living organisms were there ready to not only feed current plants, but also to continue doing the exchanges that would create the food for future plants. (Not to mention all that living soil does for us in carbon sequestration.) Nutrients in the soil are finite when the soil is dying/dead. In fact even with nutrient rich soil, if you don’t have the right pH and combination of living organisms to do the exchanges with the plants, those nutrients are as unavailable to the plants as if they were locked away in a safe. So, eventually, the only way to yield a crop is by moving to new ecosystems and fresh living soil somewhere else that hasn’t yet been depleted and killed. Well, that is the only way other than growing your crops in ways that encourage rather than kill that soil life, in ways that help plants grow strong, healthy, and nutrient dense year upon year.
Fossil fuel issues aside, modern farming can only move over to the next field so long before all the soil is dead. Game over. Big chemical agriculture and GMOs can only continue so long as more and more cash is thrown in and more and more soil is killed. So the problem is not that chemical agriculture is just unsustainable from an eco-friendly perspective, it is literally unsustainable, and leaves us with soil unable to grow food without high inputs. It is magical thinking to assume that science even has the time to solve this collapse of billions upon billions of different living relationships in the soil that have barely begun to be studied.
When Cuba lost access to fossil fuels in the early 1990s people began to starve. In desperation, everyone, everywhere began growing food. They survived precisely because of the emergence of gardens and small farms. This story is detailed in the documentary film, "The Power of Community, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil," directed by Faith Morgan. The reality is that gardening and small farms which build living soil are the only way humanity will be able to continue to feed themselves and the sooner we switch over, the more likely more people will survive when modern chemical agriculture reaches its end game.
The idea that third world people need the innovations of modern agriculture in order to eat is also a myth. First, there is more than enough food in the world, made unavailable by markets and profits, not scarcity. For more info on this read, "Hope’s Edge, the Next Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe. Second, a lot of those starving poor became so as western chemical agriculture and corporate interests colonized and pushed people off of their land where they were previously feeding themselves just fine from living soil ecosystems and home gardens. This shift was graphically documented in the book, "Ancient Futures, Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World,” by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Also, it is impossible to ignore the tens of thousands of third world farmers who have committed suicide because of the high costs and subsequent failures of GMO crops and other farming practices based on killing the soil. They often commit suicide by drinking the same poisons that killed their soil and destroyed their family’s ability to grow a diverse and nutritious diet. On the heels of these sort of tragedies, and deficiencies in access to nutrients, 1st world solutions like Golden Rice are an offensive and blind gesture. If their soil was still alive they could grow crops that were far more nutrient dense and available locally. But then that would cut out the corporate middle man, and point out that “The Green Revolution” of chemical agriculture and depleted soil is actually what is depriving people of nutrients in their food supply. But Westerners keep making themselves feel better offering poor people modified rice. Kind of like offering a crippled person a flimsy cane while continuing to kick them downhill.
Gardening and micro farming are only inefficient when your priority is profits for the few big agri corporations, rather than many local family farmers making profit off of many separate smaller acreages. Micro farms can make well over $1,000 per acre, while big chemical agriculture makes about $25 per acre. If you start to look at the pounds of food per square foot, and nutrient density in food grown in living soil, industrial agriculture comes up shamefully inefficient. Not only are big agribusiness and GMO farming inefficient at the amount of nutrient produced per acre, they are also the most inefficient at creating the soil life that will guarantee that we can eat next year and the year after that, etc. So, the question is which matters more, deficiency in profits for a few, or deficiency in life?
Lichen June is the Director of the Northwest Permaculture Institute in Oregon, USA