Guest Posts

Food & Climate Change: A Permaculture Perspective

By February 26, 2020July 31st, 2020No Comments

Our current food industry isn’t working. Agriculture accounts for 9.3% of the United States’ carbon footprint. This carbon footprint is furthered when we consider the high percentage of this food that goes to waste.

Agriculture is a designed human system which has created wealth and security, fueled industrialization and specialization of labor, and allows all the beauty of cities and society to continue. However, the human-altered biogeochemical cycles of energy and matter of contemporary agriculture are not appropriately managed. These climate change impacts are vast, including vulnerability of biodiversity, food security, human health, and water quality.

Total Emissions in 2017 = 6,457 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent. Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2019

Permaculture offers positive solutions to properly manage these cycles, eliminate toxic chemicals, and create an abundance of food while regenerating land. Permaculture is a sustainable practice that creates beneficial relationships between human and living systems. Permaculture is about care for people, care for the planet, and return of surplus. In this blog post, I would like to introduce a permaculture perspective of contemporary industrial agriculture and its barriers to sustainability.

INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE VS. PERMACULTURE

There are a few processes that account for the majority of carbon and carbon equivalents produced in agriculture: application of artificial fertilizers, poor soil management, methane from flatulence and manure of livestock (primarily beef and dairy cows), and transportation of agricultural products.

Application of artificial fertilizer and high nitrogen manures can create nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Permaculture has a variety of approaches to mediate, resolve, or avoid these unsustainable practices. Specifically, permaculture advocates for completely organic agriculture which avoids the artificial fertilizers. When you farm organically, you don’t feed the plants, you feed the soil. Permaculture methods like composting, ‘chop and drop,’ no-till farming, and more efficient fertilizer application, like foliar sprays, increase beneficial soil organisms. These methods reduce or eliminate nitrogen or carbon escaping from soils.

This photo shows what tilling may look like on a farm. Tilling temporarily makes soil nutrients available to plants, but kills soil organisms by exposing and disrupting soil structure. Photo credit: Keith Weller, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Public domain

Soil erosion practices can also produce nitrous oxide as soil nitrogen is exposed to weathering. Regarding soil management, permaculture designs seek to ‘slow, spread, and sink’ water. This reduces stormwater runoff, recharges the aquifer, and seeks to eliminate soil erosion, thereby reducing the amount of carbon and nitrogen which leave the soil.

While there is a considerable amount of methane produced by cows’ stomachs, their decomposing manure creates additional carbon. Aerobic decomposition of this manure makes more carbon dioxide, whereas anaerobic decomposition produces more methane. A popular manure management method that permaculture uses is called a methane biodigester. These structures create anaerobic conditions for bacteria to process manure and other wastes and allow the gas to be collected for use in cooking and heating. Capturing and burning this methane creates carbon dioxide, but the impact is much lower than allowing methane to escape to the environment. Also, simply composting manures can avoid methane production.

Finally, a major issue with contemporary agriculture is that it happens far from where people live, and grocery stores are stocked with the same foods everywhere in the country. Harvested agricultural products must be transported hundreds of miles between farms, processing plants, distribution centers, and grocery stores, just to get to your fridge. This inherently creates embodied carbon through the transportation. Permaculture advocates for region-specific foods, growing food in your front and back yards, and eating local foods that are not part of the typical American diet. Farm-to-table production allows harvest when food is ripe and in season and avoids long transportation routes.

 

Diagram of how an anaerobic digester works.

Diagram of a biodigester. Photo Credit: Consumers Energy

In addition to the problematic size of agriculture’s carbon footprint, pesticide toxicity (insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides) needs to be addressed to reach sustainability. Toxic chemicals used in agriculture are intended to kill pests, however, these chemicals can have long-lasting unintended impacts after application. Don’t get me wrong, the use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers has helped to feed millions of people. At the same time, some of these chemicals are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, and their impacts may not be fully known. For example, when you look at the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES) recommendations for pest management, you find a multitude of synthetic chemicals which are known toxins. To ACES’ credit, care is taken to recommend techniques that reduce total use and environmental impacts. However, peanuts alone have a 47 page guide to the use of these chemicals.

All of this contributes to why permaculture advocates for completely organic agriculture. There are ways to design farms which naturally break pest cycles, like providing habitats for predators, cycling livestock paddock management, and planting a polyculture of companion plants instead of monocultures vulnerable to pests. In a permaculture design, each element performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by multiple elements. This is why there is no single chemical insecticide to solve a pest problem, but rather a network of natural elements which work together to reduce pests. This is also why a diversity of species is planted. This diversity makes it harder for pests to find their preferred food, while creating additional habitats for predator species to eat pests.

The Permaculture forest garden seeks to fill each ecological niche of the ecosystem with productive and supportive species to create a natural system which provides for humans. Photo credit: Quercusrobur at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

DISCUSSION­

The industrial food complex has a massive impact on the global scale. By changing biogeochemical cycles of energy and matter (like carbon), we are literally changing the climate. The primary impacts to consider when looking at agriculture are the carbon footprint, artificial fertilizers, soil erosion, livestock, transportation, and pesticide toxicity. Permaculture has a variety of suggestions and methods to manage human and natural systems to reduce or reverse these impacts. However, sustainable solutions need to be properly used in the appropriate situation.

Because each site is different, each bioregion has its own considerations for regeneration. The appropriate application of permaculture has tremendous value to explore for regenerative agriculture. Permaculture is taught through the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course. The Permaculture Institute of North America (PINA) has information about permaculture educators and courses near you.

Find out more about permaculture principles and practices at the next Permaculture Tigers meeting, March 25 from 6:00 to 8:00 PM in Student Center 2222. Permaculture Tigers is a registered student organization at Auburn and an allied organization to PINA. We have monthly meetings on the last Wednesday of the month during fall and spring semesters. We have guest speakers, educational workshops, and field trips to permaculture sites.

Post contributed by Joe Nisbett, President of Permaculture Tigers, Master of Landscape Architecture, Master of Community Planning.

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