Will this Type of Agriculture Feed Your Grandchildren?
A closer look at Syntropic Farming
You know that a system of agriculture is truly sustainable when the harvest occurs—increasingly abundantly—as a by-product of ecosystem regeneration.
There are almost as many shades of restorative or regenerative agriculture as there are shades of green. What all of them have in common is that the harvest is a side-effect of ecosystem regeneration, and vice versa – ecosystem regeneration is a side-effect of the efforts to produce a harvest.
In this article I’ll draw a brief comparison between regenerative agricultural systems that can sustain us in the long term, and industrial agriculture.
In particular I’ll feature a type of regenerative agriculture called Syntropic Farming – because I just attended a workshop about it and that’s what prompted this article.
Is it true that industrial agriculture can feed the world?
Industrial agriculture has been called “a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems, of approaches that are better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators”
It produces only 30% of the worlds food, using approximately 75% of its farming resources
Regenerative types of agriculture, in contrast, have proven that they can feed us in the long term
Small scale, biologically diverse, family-run and community-run farming can also address related challenges of poverty, social unrest, economic, social, and gender inequality, climate change, species extinctions and loss of biodiversity, and the long-term viability of humans on planet earth.
“Industrial Agriculture is like mining. It’s extractive.” I heard this said at a Syntropic Farming Workshop I attended recently and thought how apt it is. (I’ll explain what “Syntropics” is, below.)
Industrial Agriculture is an extraction of resources, without replacing them.
It’s a linear system that extracts fertility at Point A from the soil, the ecosystem, the community, and exports it (incredibly wastefully) to Point B where people consume the products of that fertility without knowing anything about how they were produced.
With no connection back to the land and communities that the product came from, the consumers of the goods are the end of the line. There is no feedback loop.
To continue producing, Industrial Agriculture imports synthetic substances that, over time, increase the dependence upon them, working like a drug addiction does.
Larger and larger doses of these inputs are needed to attain diminishing harvests while topsoil washes away, biodiversity dwindles to nothing, and young people leave impoverished farming communities to try their luck elsewhere.
From industrial to organic – a good start, but not enough
When we replace chemical fertilisers and pesticides with organic ones, it’s a step in the right direction.
But unless the loop closes, the system is still linear and these organic inputs are still ways of trying to remedy gaps left by our failure to respect nature’s feedback loops.
Reconnecting the pieces
In contrast, regenerative and restorative types of agriculture seek to close the loop.
There is a startup phase where inputs such as mulch and manures may be imported, but the goal is to develop a system that can restore biodiversity, functionality, and fertility, so that:
- the only inputs needed after the system is established are sunlight, natural precipitation, and intelligent management, and
- the harvest occurs as a side effect of ecosystem regeneration rather than as an extraction from the ecosystem.
When I attended a workshop on Syntropic Farming recently, I experienced it partly as a way of better understanding what, in Permaculture, might be called Plant Guilds, Polycultures, Food Forests, or Forest Gardening.
The topic of Syntropic Farming—arranging synergistic groupings of plants that can develop into abundantly productive systems that don’t require inputs—has fascinated me since I first began to learn about Permaculture.
With what I am learning from the study of Syntropics, I feel as if several pieces I wasn’t understanding before have begun to fall into place.
For example, a key understanding that I was missing or neglecting was the importance of actively managing a system (such as a food forest) once it’s been planted.
With inadequate management, a system will still evolve toward increasing complexity and abundance (so long as it is not being plundered and depleted) but it will be slow.
With proper management, the process can be dramatically sped up, toward the point where the system can incorporate and support large animals—such as humans—without needing inputs from outside itself.
But wait. Before we go any further, what is syntropy?
To put it very simply, syntropy is the opposite of entropy.
…Entropy … refers to … energy degradation [within a given system].
… In trying to [apply] the concept of entropy [to] living systems, … scientists [have long] concluded that there was a need to describe a complementary [or opposite] tendency.
For the mathematician Fantappiè (1942), … entropy … [was] the understanding that all concentrated energy in the universe tends to dissipate, simplify and dissociate, [while] syntropy manifests itself by forming structures [and] increasing differentiation and complexity, as with life.
That is [to say] … entropy disperses, syntropy concentrates.
Without using the term ‘syntropy,’ physics such as Erwin Schrödinger also reached a similar conclusion in the 1940s: ‘life feeds on negative entropy.’
The idea that there is some opposite or complementary force to entropy – and that life on planet Earth would be the manifestation of that force – has intrigued scientists from a variety of fields [since the 1940s,] … and, [in] the 1970s, would help compose the premises of Lovelock and Margulis’s Gaia Theory.
What does this definition of syntropy mean for agriculture?
In Syntropic Farming, … weeding becomes harvesting, … competition gives way to cooperation, and pests and diseases are seen as … ‘agents from the department of optimisation of life processes.’
These terms arise from a change in the way we see, interpret and relate to nature.
Many [attempts at] sustainable farming practices are [still] based on the logic of input substitution.
Chemicals are replaced with organic, plastics with biodegradable materials, pesticides with all sort of preparations.
However, the way of thinking has not changed very much. All of these inputs are still there to combat the consequences of the lack of adequate conditions for healthy plant growth.
Syntropic Agriculture, on the other hand, helps the farmer replicate and accelerate the natural processes of ecological succession and stratification, giving each plant the ideal conditions for its development, placing each one in their ‘just right’ position in space ([sunlight] strata) and in time (succession).
It is process-based agriculture, rather than input-based. In that way, the harvest is seen as a side effect of ecosystem regeneration, or vice versa.
The above quotes are taken from the article “What is Syntropic Farming.”
So. Going back to the question I asked in the title of this post:
How do you know if a system of agriculture is capable of feeding your grandchildren?
The answer is that if the main focus of the type of agriculture in question is regeneration of soil, ecosystems, and communities, with the harvest as a by-product, then Yes, this system can feed future generations indefinitely.
If the main objective is to harvest, or extract, without a corresponding focus on building local fertility and biodiversity, then the answer is No.
Another way of saying it is this: truly sustainable agriculture systems focus at least as much on producing what the system needs, as they do on producing what is intended to be sold from the system.
The saleable harvest is a surplus AFTER all the needs of the farm, community, and local ecosystem have been met.
It’s the principle of the goose and the golden eggs. Unless the goose is thriving, there will not be eggs for long.
Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.
For non-consumers who value real food and real connections, and who plan on leaving behind a planet that still has blue whales and wild rhinos.
Who Will Feed Us? This is an eye-opening read.
Among other things, it points out that: 70% of the world is fed by what it calls the “Peasant Food Web,” on only 25% of the resources; for every $1 paid for industrial food, it costs another $2 to clean up the mess made by industrial food production; damage caused by the Industrial Food Chain costs 5 times the worlds military expenditures.
According to these figures, Industrial food production not only cannot feed us, it is actually doing the opposite.
Urban Farms now Produce 1/5 of the World’s Food
Organic Agriculture can Feed the World
17 Organizations feeding the world through regenerative agriculture
GlobalAgriculture.org – Original Reports
Wake up Before it’s too Late. Trade and Environment Review, 2013
Thank you for this article! It clearly explains the essence of Permaculture!
Important insights, especially moving from inputs to process. Work with nature!
A point that Syntropic Farming makes that caught my attention was that it is “process-based agriculture,” rather than “inputs-based.” I think just this concept alone could go a long way toward keeping us on the right track. We could ask ourselves, “What processes would I need to attend to, in order to not need inputs?”
Really is a return to manure! Couldn’t help thinking though that you might have included a reference to Rudolf Steiner who pioneered bio-dynamic farming and the concepts of closed loop, natural processes to produce, and surplus. Of course, he also included a deal of spiritualism with his philosophy which may be why he seems to be avoided these days.
Hi Jag, thank you for reading, and for your comment. Rudolf Steiner’s work is definitely inspirational.
As a researcher and practitioner of regenerative agriculture this concept of syntropy is dear to my heart. I am really trying to find a working example of a farm like this where folks are growing 100% of the food they need for each year. Could the author or anyone here point me towards an example in the developed western world where some one is actively growing 100% of their food each year using these kinds of ideas and principles? It’s sort of my quest for a grail so to speak. I would very much appreciate it if anyone has any ideas.
Great article! Thank you for keeping up this important task.
Hi Paranormal, I’d like to see that too :)
This article reads very similar to most on permaculture – like a damp squib after the empty claims are deflated. Too many of these articles focus on ‘converting’ people to regenerative agriculture when, by the merit of looking into it, most readers are already converted.
“It produces only 30% of the worlds food, using approximately 75% of its farming resources”
– Fourth or fifth hand reference alluding to vague special reports with no formulas of other working on this self proclaimed ‘estimate’. Injecting pseudoscience actually detracts from the strength of your position (what are you trying to upsell and why does it need an upsell?)
“Regenerative types of agriculture, in contrast, have proven that they can feed us in the long term”
– Who, when, where and most importantly how? No examples of self sufficient permaculture or syntropic farms exist without majority revenue from tourism/education (both unsustainable). Dont even get me started about the constant need for volunteer labour.
“Small scale, biologically diverse, family-run and community-run farming can also address related challenges of poverty, social unrest, economic, social, and gender inequality, climate change, species extinctions and loss of biodiversity, and the long-term viability of humans on planet earth.”
– Unqualified broad statements such as this detract from the factual/scientific merits of syntropic farming and permaculture. You naturally draw skepticism when you overstate benefits of a product and fail to qualify how they are achieved. Like if I said my new form of yoga can cure cancer and prevent COVID…youd probably want evidence if not proof.
Like all green movements currently its just a lot of hot air. Too much time is spent overstating the benefits in an attempt to convince others, and not enough is spent proving it works and freely disseminating the ‘world saving’ ideas.
Hi Steve, thanks for commenting. Ouch.
I’m not trying to sell anything, just waxing lyrical about a concept that caught my attention and made me feel enthusiastic.
Your comments about “Fourth or fifth hand reference alluding to vague special reports” are valuable. You are right, and I’ll try harder in future when making such statements to get to the original references.
I also take your point about needing more examples of people actually feeding themselves without inputs from volunteers/tourism/education. I do think there are some, but since I’m not about to invest my time right now in hunting them out so I can win an argument with you, I don’t suppose my response will hold any value for you.
As a farming family working long hours to pay off a mortgage and get to a point where we can ditch the outside income and truly feed ourselves on our own small farm, often what I write is at least partially about encouraging MYSELF that we’re on the right track. So in a sense my family and I are working on proving that it works — to ourselves, which is where the first and most important proof is needed if people are to stay in the game. In my defense, I have no intention of stopping cheering myself on by writing articles such as this, and sharing that cheering with others who want to hear it too.
But, again, I thank you for you for your comment because your criticisms hold important truths and I’ll be keeping them in mind as I write future articles.