GeneralWhy Permaculture?

Food Crisis: Problem is the Solution

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PARIS—Nestled in a valley in the northern French countryside of Normandy, the Bec Hellouin farm, once the first permaculture farm in France, produces some 800 varieties of fruits and vegetables. In 2004, world travelers and teachers, Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer, decided to turn their energies and talents to farming. Their acres of intensive polyculture fields, two greenhouses, two mandala gardens for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers coexist with orchard-based agroforestry providing berries and fruits on this property. The farm landscape includes several ponds and a river, as well as Mérens horses, a hardy race from the Pyrenees; mini Shetland ponies; sheep from the island of Ouessant; donkeys from the Cotentin Peninsula near Cherbourg; pigs from Bayeux; and an innumerable assortment of rabbits, hens, geese, ducks, and guinea fowl.

But the real experiment that carries enormous promise for global, small-scale agriculture came over a three-year period ending last year. A garden area of a quarter acre was carved out and planted using the most advanced permaculture techniques. In a single year, this plot produced €52,000 ($57,200) worth of output for 1,400 hours of work, for an effective salary of €20 ($22) an hour. With this kind of output globally, there would be little or no threat of hunger no matter how rapidly the population of our planet expands. It raises many questions obviously, and one that especially concerns me—whether microfarming is a solution to the global food problem.

This experiment could seem esoteric, limited to a few insiders or lunatics, yet it is united by the deeper consciousness it reaches and the issues it addresses. The foundations, however, rest on some deeply involved individuals, each looking for answers and a method to tackle new issues. The answers, the methods they uncovered, have turned into deep convictions supported by their experiences and innovations. Their experiments, the questions they’ve asked and answered, address the basics of agriculture itself and its relations to a host of issues central to our society. Despite our crumbling societies, it is imperative for us to find a link to anchor our identities and maintain, but above all feed, our civilization and those to come.

I have changed the way I look at an unbalanced lifestyle that does not satisfy me anymore. And I do not doubt that this view will grow stronger, especially in a hyperconnected world that can transform any crisis, especially a food crisis, into a global and systemic one. A child of both rural and urban education, I was in the countryside at every opportunity—in the park, the forest, and the farm—recognizing the importance of this green lung, this laboratory of life, where everything that is produced is shared between all inhabitants. In the city, I was confronted with the art of consumption, accumulation, and arbitrary competition. As time passed, I returned to what reassured me—the earth, the soil, the multiple scents and pleasures of food-producing gardens, the marvelous and surprising aesthetics, and the exquisite and restful beauty of nature.

Acting on this appetite, I created a private garden of different varieties of tomatoes in the Château de la Bourdaisière in the Loire Valley. In 1993, there were more than 40 varieties. In 1996, at the breakout of the mad cow disease crisis, there were 300. And today there are more than 650 in the garden that became the National Tomato Conservatory. This laboratory began to measure the importance of biodiversity and varietal richness, the sensory, nutritional, medicinal impacts, and therefore sanitary, cultural, and economic importance. So many people have discovered this small Eden, as chefs, farmers, consumers, all generations, marvel at this previously unknown beauty.

Creating an agro-ecology microfarm inspired by permaculture was a first, vital step toward understanding and measuring the impact of food production on people, territories, economies, soils, and the environment. This work, supported by the association Fermes d’Avenir (Farms of the Future), is supervised by a scientific, economic, and social committee. Hopefully, this farm, alongside the many others that already exist, will facilitate the global replication of the model in the future.


By measuring a range of production, environmental, and social factors on one farm, the experimental work aims to assess whether scaling up these types of farms could be an answer to the multiple challenges of an industrial and conventional agriculture with debatable efficiency—acting in a globalized market, amid changing climates, and relying heavily on fossil fuels.

Yes, agriculture has become global. Never in human history have we relied so heavily on the importation of primary goods—cereals, meat, milk—that used to be produced locally. This globalization has gone hand in hand with standardization, and its set of norms and calibers, which in turn have required substantial investment, leading farmers increasingly to specialize—effectively monoculture. Even worse, conformity with these requirements has led to new levels of indebtedness, leaving farmers with no margin to adapt to new demands by changing their practices. So all too often, in the developed and developing world, the monetization of agriculture has resulted in an ever more rapid rural exodus, mechanization that has created no jobs, and soil destruction with extensive chemical inputs.

A single dramatic figure is most illustrative. At the outbreak of World War II, with 1 energy calorie or 4.2 joules of energy, one could produce 2.3 food calories. In 2009, with increased use of technology, we needed 7.4 energy calories or 31 joules to produce 1 food calorie. Basically, we need more energy now to produce less food than we used to, and agriculture is no more efficient. The agro-systems we’ve created to increase efficiency are failing us, while putting at risk future generations through the degradation of the soil.

At the same time, agriculture shrinks biodiversity. Usually, at least several hundred varieties of one fruit or vegetable exist naturally. While 10,000 varieties of tomatoes exist in the world, no more than 100 are sold. To be profitable, there is a selection process, relying on artificial creations, which use hybridization techniques to arrive at the perfect varieties with the perfect properties—abundant production, resistant to diseases, and sturdiness when transported. Chemical companies develop varieties resistant to the very pesticides they are selling, so each year farmers must buy their plants from those same companies.

Not only are numerous varieties of food on the verge of disappearance in the face of industrial agriculture, but several reports from international organizations show that the current industrial agriculture is quite costly, not only to the small farmer, but also to all kinds of life. As one Food and Agricultural Organization report put it:

“Pesticides kill pests, but also pests’ natural enemies, and their overuse can harm farmers, consumers, and the environment. The first line of defense is a healthy agro-ecosystem […] Excessive use of pesticide also exposes farmers to serious health risks and has negative consequences for the environment, and sometimes for crop yields. Often less than 1 percent of pesticides applied actually reaches a target pest organism; the rest contaminates the air, soil, and water.”

Such reports have launched a critical conversation leading most recently to a growing consensus of all the principal parties—farmers, citizens, policymakers, and the scientific community. While soil destruction will constitute a tremendous ecological debt to future generations, there are also sanitary issues with industrial agriculture. For example, the cost of chemical exposure (that are probable causes of cancers, Parkinson’s disease, infertility, and obesity) has been recently estimated at €157 ($172) billion annually in the European Union, or roughly 1.2 percent of its GDP.


Our climate is changing, temperatures rising, droughts ever more common. And a host of other natural catastrophes are also impacting agriculture. Access to water is more difficult, as food insecurity spurs social unrest, conflicts, and poverty. Floods are becoming more frequent, and soil is more easily eroded. Meanwhile, terrestrial and marine species that cannot move fast enough to find a more adequate climate may become extinct, especially in tropical areas. In short, anything and everything we know about agriculture is on the cusp of becoming obsolete. As soils and plant behaviors change radically, agriculture will be exposed to new pests, carrying previously unknown diseases.

And this is only what we know so far. Scientific projections have become increasingly precise throughout the years, yet there is still a substantial measure of uncertainty because these projections are not linear. Once our climate is disrupted, the string of consequences is all but unforeseeable. Such uncertainties jeopardize our capacity to feed 9 billion people—a best-case scenario in the next half century, or 11 billion under the worst case. And our current industrial agriculture model is definitely not up to the challenge.

Quite simply, today’s agriculture relies too heavily on nonrenewable items and on massive quantities of water, while reducing biodiversity, which is necessary to adapt to climate change. The variety of species is an important element, if they are to adapt naturally to climate change. Peach trees are affected every year, when spring comes, by peach leaf curl, a disease originating from a fungus. Commercial varieties that are created for more productivity are most often prey, reducing drastically their productivity. The Genard variety of peaches was removed from orchards because it was not very productive. Yet, it turns out that it is very resistant to the curl leaf disease. The fungus responsible for this disease does not survive above 70 degrees, but many viruses sensitive to cold weather will enjoy a bit more warmth.


Agriculture relies heavily on non-renewables. Hundreds of acres managed by machines are profitable only when fuel is accessible and cheap. When this changes, the whole model is disrupted. At the same time nitrogen-based fertilizers come from natural gas, oil is necessary for pesticides, herbicides, and obviously engines. Meanwhile, food travels an average of 1,000 miles between production and final consumption in the United States. Ignoring the energy necessary for production, this alone accounts for 17 percent of total energy consumption in the United States, and numbers are comparable in many other parts of the world. Our agriculture relies heavily on fossil fuels (400 gallons of oil are necessary to produce 1,100 pounds of meat), none of which was the case even 50 years ago.

Minerals and especially phosphorus—a key element in cultivating plants and feeding animals and humans—start to deplete the soil as well. Some of these elements are essential to agriculture, but some, like fossil fuel consumption, used for production as well as transport, could easily be reduced.

And then there’s water. Agriculture relies on massive quantities. The lack of water, especially potable water, already creates water conflicts. Water has no boundaries, while our world does. Most rivers and aquifers are transboundary, and benefit several countries. Especially in dry regions, countries want to secure their own supply, which results in conflicts. The Jordanian conflict is probably the best known, because it is an integral part of the geopolitical issue between Israel and Palestine. The Jordan River basin is shared between four countries: Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, not to mention Palestinian territories in the West Bank. In a context of increasing demand and of scarcity in the region, water became one major issue and a strategic asset. All too often, water is taken for granted, and agriculture depends on it.


All these aspects are intertwined in quite a fragile balance, with growing risk factors—demographic imperatives, rural-urban migration, and overcrowded cities. The rise of environmentally-linked health issues are also closely tied to the rise of urban pollution and climate-related migration. Governments’ inability to find peaceful answers to such issues that threaten societies and indeed the eventual survival of the human species leads to systemic anxieties and the destruction of the economic and social fabric.

While agriculture is a substantial part of this problem, it is critical we make it part of the solution—but with a global twist. Through many experiments, agriculture has already proven its capacity to be innovative and to be part of the solution, especially when factoring in microfarming. The example of the Bec Hellouin has inspired me to act—creating an experiment that would show that in four years, on one-quarter of an acre, I could be profitable while feeding the locals with good products that are cultivated in a way that does not degrade the environment. My team and I have formed a scientific committee that will measure and follow the experiment, so that we have hard facts and numbers to support our demonstration at the end. But the final aim is to lobby for systematization of these farms across France, if not Europe at large.

There are several key steps to creating a new worldwide food system. The first and most critical step is restoring local production and consumption patterns. Beyond reducing the chemicals necessary to preserve the integrity of the food while traveling, such a system encourages local varieties that are adapted to regional soil and climate characteristics. To preserve this diversity, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is working to safeguard crop diversity, has created a seed bank of thousands of species adapted to many different territories and soils.

Crop diversity is fundamental to productivity, resilience, and profitability of farming, says Marie Haga, Global Crop Diversity Trust’s executive director. The success of modern agriculture has steadily eroded diversity in farmers’ fields over the world, but these options are not yet gone forever. Some varieties are more difficult to grow, but studies in the dynamic nature of different soils combined with studies of heirloom species should help local farmers tremendously with this new approach. Community farming, exchanging best practices, sharing discoveries via Internet of web exchange platforms—all these efforts can lead to sustainable and needed agricultural changes.

Agriculture is resilient as it fertilizes soils, alleviates pollution, transforms solar energy into calories through photosynthesis, and stores carbon dioxide. As such, nature should benefit from agriculture, not suffer from it.

The analysis of new models of agriculture must be interdisciplinary, and suggest, aside from the agriculture itself, how these models are going to fit in, what can be the tipping point, and who might carry out these new projects. It must suggest how much our societies, politicians, and lobbies are willing to do to support this shift. Landowners could be spearheads in this transformation, because they have both the earth and the capital, are aware of the value of patrimony, and have an acute perception of territories.

The creators of the Bec Hellouin are searching for a more virtuous model, like that espoused by a new generation of peasants, for instance Maxime de Rostolan (director of Fermes d’Avenir), who combines ecology and economy, philosophy and physiocracy—a term derived from the Greek for the “Government of Nature” by a group of 18th century French economists of the Enlightenment. Led by Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, the physiocrats believed that nations’ wealth was derived solely from the value of the land and its development. (Ironically, de Nemours’ son emigrated to America and founded the chemical company that bears his name, developing many of the most pernicious agricultural chemicals.) Today, without all that intellectual baggage, the de Rostolans are fast becoming the new economists of our land.

Let us hope for a society in which the new economists and their disciples will have the courage to act upon their convictions and restore a fundamental equilibrium.

—with Lucie Rousselot

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