Transition to Local Food

One pressing issue for Transition communities has been the question of local food and sustainable agriculture. As Transition has its roots in the permaculture movement, we envision Transition agriculture as not only organic, but in harmony with principles of permaculture.

One question is whether permaculture is a movement that can spread quickly. According to two recent blog posts by Sharon Astyk on permaculture (Part I an Part II), one major hurdle faced by permaculture is its image as a movement mainly composed of white “hippies” and “touchy-feely types”.  The solution may be for permaculturists who do not fit that description to realize how important it is to be visible – to write, to teach, to help create groups of neighborhood gardeners, school gardens, church gardens, etc…

We worry that mainstream America is not interested in a local, organic, plant-based diet. There are signs that this interest is growing, but can it catch on fast enough to match oil depletion rates, or fast enough to impact the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture?

Our present industrial agriculture was set up by deliberate decisions made by government leaders responsible for feeding the entire United States. A leading hero of this effort was Earl Butz, a secretary of agriculture from 1971-1976, who was frequently quoted as rejecting organic agriculture because it would not feed the entire population.

At the present time, with 50% more Americans than Earl Butz was trying to feed, and significantly less farmland, proponents of industrial agriculture may have a genuine fear that organic methods will cause mass starvation in our country. After all, it is apparent that developing nations frequently experience starvation, and that one reason is that farmers do not have enough money to buy sufficient fertilizer.

However, the industrial agriculture/genetically modified seeds paradigm continues to minimize the costs of proposed solutions. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize winner for his work as the “father of the Green Revolution”, which is based on genetic engineering and artificial fertilizers, recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal. There is no question that he saved millions from starvation by increasing yields in the Third World. He entitles his article “Farmers Can Feed the World” arguing that we can stay ahead of recent rising rates of starvation in the world, and that the only reliable way to do it is more and faster genetic engineering. However, what we know so far is that bioengineered crops have resulted in a host of new problems as they use unsustainable levels of water and artificial inputs, and seed-peddling multinational corporations reap profits at the expense of poor local farmers ( The solution we seek would aim to escape that paradigm.

The mindset I question is that of reducing a problem to its single most important component, and then seeking to address that particular component, consequences be damned. Following permaculture principles, I would address a problem by taking a broader look, and hope to come up with a solution that looks beyond the issue at hand. One can genetically engineer seeds for drought resistance, for example, but will these seeds be ready for “climate chaos”? On the other hand, healthy soil with lots of organic content has been shown to yield more reliably for a variety of crops, in a variety of weather conditions.

In response to the proponents of industrial agriculture, there are detailed studies that purportedly prove that organic agriculture can feed us all, and that yields are even likely to rise over time as soil fertility builds gradually. Nevertheless, in his July 3rd blog post, Rob Hopkins reflects that permaculture does in fact suffer from insufficient well-thought out research.

I agree that our numbers are sketchy. A recent post in The Oil Drum argues that there is only about one square kilometer of arable land for each 470 humans on Earth at this time. This works out to about 0.5 acres per person. It does fail to take into account human ingenuity – can we grow food in swamps, on rooftops, decks, sidewalks, the sides of buildings? I will leave that aside for now, because it is not clear to me that we have considered what that will require. Can you imagine how much compost would be required yearly to turn every roof in your town into a mini-farm?

On the other hand, Jason Bradford, of Willits Economic Localization, has calculated  how much acreage a person might need to survive in Mendocino county.  In his calculations, he shows clearly that the acreage needed depends crucially on the diet chosen. A healthy, relatively “normal” American diet requires about one acre per person. Adding quantities of meat presently consumed might require an additional 8 acres per person, some of it arable, some of it less well suited to growing crops. This means that even rural Mendocino county, though it has a fairly long growing season, might not be able to feed itself, given its present population. The only way it could, even on paper, was to change the diet by decreasing calories and food waste, drastically reducing sugar and meat, and substituting dry beans and nuts as a major source of protein.

Diet change, then, becomes the first issue that needs to be addressed when we think about sustainable agriculture. In a low-energy society, home food storage and processing also becomes crucial, further informing the types of food we will need. The first consequence of this is that the arguments of industrial farmers become irrelevant. Reading Blake Hurst’s American Enterprise Institute piece, for example, it quickly becomes apparent that he is worried about obtaining a yield similar to the one he gets now, using organic methods. I imagine that is because he gets very little cash per bushel of corn – and that is because so much of that corn must profitably go on to be processed either into soft drinks, cattle feed, or biodiesel.  It appears, then, that these may not be sustainable uses of corn.

In the end, our Transition Towns will have to develop a model where a certain number of people live on a well-thought out diet of exclusively local, organic food on a limited number of acres. This is done all over the world by subsistence farmers, but their survival year to year seems entirely too precarious, and their staple foods are totally unfamiliar to us. We will have to invent a myriad of locale-specific diets. It may never be possible to extrapolate and multiply to the Earth as a whole.

What we can do is design rough guidelines. We will need to document inputs and yields, and describe the nature and quality of the crops that all regions needs to consider, including growing green manure, animal feed, composting kitchen waste and ultimately human waste. We may conclude that some foods may need to continue being shipped across the country.

Transition is based on the concern that industrial agriculture will not be sustained, though believers in progress insist that technological advances will save us. We believe that eventually reality will catch up, whether it be the erosion of topsoil, super-pests, lack of affordable inputs, lack of diesel to transport food, lack of income to buy it, or lack of government subsidy to grow vast quantities of corn – and the system that sells most of its main crop as cattle feed, high fructose corn syrup and biodiesel will simply have to step aside.

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