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From the Personal to the Publicly Global

From the Personal to the Publicly Global: Permaculture and Food Security

By Rowe Morrow

Food insecurity is a reflection of our cultural approaches to the land. Image CC0 via Pixabay.

THE UNITED NATIONS’ COMMITTEE on World Food Security has defined food security as follows: Food security, means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

The definition, in turn requires definitions—what does it mean to have ‘sufficient’ food or ‘safe’ food? And to meet our preferences? Some tendentious questions are embedded in the definition. Then there is the question of economic access—enough money to buy sufficient, safe, and nutritious food? That brings up questions of access and equity. And, of course, how can this be done? Can permaculture contribute significantly to future food security to meet the UN definition? And is the definition enough?

Cultural approaches to food security

Historically, when life seemed simpler and more local, bioregions could produce and meet their own food needs often with reasonable equity. I remember a class of 30 Vietnamese

permaculturists each defining their bioregion and listing what foods they produced and how much rice as a staple. Even France, with its ‘one cheese for every day of the year’ slogan, demonstrated bioregionalism. Ugandans mentioned the variety of yams they had traditionally eaten as staples.

However, most of the world has never had complete food security, and perhaps such a goal is not possible. In the tropics, both wet and dry, there are traditional ‘hunger’ periods for climatic reasons—too humid and wet, or too dry to support food production. In the temperate regions, cold was often a limiting factor. Cultures in these regions always stored food for these periods of scarcity. They dried, salted, fermented, sugared (jams), preserved, and froze. They had granaries, cellars, and larders of a range of types. These gave food security during the lean periods.

Seasonally, the Khmer put their houses on small trucks or ox-driven drays and moved to the lake Ton Le Sap for the flooded fishing and fish-drying season, and then they took their houses home again. In this case, food security came from understanding seasons and their harvests of fish. People needed local ecological knowledge and an understanding of these patterns.

Transhumance, walking animals up mountains, has been a global response to the need for food security. The animals, kept indoors in barns during winter and fed hay and grains, were taken to high pastures in summer. After the snow receded, the low fields could be cultivated, and winter-accumulated animal dungs used as fertilizer. This practice is still followed in parts of Iraq, France, and not long ago in Portugal, where shepherds walked their flocks from south to north across the country.

All these behaviors yielded food security for people who knew and understood the seasons, the harvests, the potential of diversity, and the need to be in good relationship with the land.

These cultural approaches to food security differ from self-sufficiency, as sometimes advocated by permaculturists. Self-sufficiency is almost impossible on an individual level and only possible as a community. Now, most permaculturists advocate for self-sufficiency to be community-based.

The land stayed in good health and was fully sustainable wherever people monitored and managed their consumption. For example, the Aga-Bali, the Konso, the Australian Aboriginal people, the people of the Rajasthani deserts, and the T’Boli all practiced the same primary ethic of controlling consumption and never depleting resources below Nature’s ability to restore them. In harsh seasons, they took less. They never took more from the forests than could be regenerated.

The Konso of Ethiopia required the oldest people to share food with the youngest when food was becoming scarce. They also ensured the sick, pregnant, and elderly accessed fresh water first. They never cut trees on the tops of mountains or beside rivers. All these cultures managed resources carefully so that they could recover. The natural environment supplying food was never diminished, which is the definition of sustainability.

Where community residents grew their own food, they shared and traded surplus. Among the Konso where I spent some time, the most important people in the community, with the highest status, were those who could and did grow the most food of good quality.

Vietnam has a gardening history of 3,000 years and an extraordinary range of adaptations to its various ecosystems, including fruit, animals, staples, and fish.

The modern approach to food security

In 1900, just under 40% of the US population lived on farms, and 60% lived in rural areas. Today, the respective figures are only about 1% and 20%, respectively. In 1900, 98% of US farms had chickens, 82% grew corn for grain, 80% had at least one milk cow, and a like percentage had pigs. Most of them grew surplus for local or urban markets.

From the US example, which provides an early trend for the whole world, food security is no longer individual and communal, but has been given over to large operators. Of course, there are small pockets and exceptions, but the trend to fewer and fewer providing for more and more is universal.

This outcome was, of course, achieved by cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels. Companies, with their big machines and so called ‘economies of scale,’ developed vertical integration from farm to market. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other energy-intensive necessities resulted in very large yields from monocultures. The consequences were postponed into the future. Polluted rivers, groundwater, and soils; loss of soil life, wildlife, and biodiversity; river silting; farmland subsidence, depletion of minerals and microbial life, salinization, and erosion were the unintended results.

The measure of yield became, not the total biomass per hectare, but the total tons of a particular crop per hectare. Complementary yields, such as honey, biofuels, building materials, ecosystem services, and so on, were excluded from figures for harvest per hectare.

Modern food security became the supermarket. So, which has the responsibility to provide food security: the state or the market? Whose duty is it to ensure sufficient, safe, and nutritious food? Where are the alternatives to provide us with choices, including how to farm? Morally and ethically, whose responsibility is it?

Permaculture, bioregions, & food security

We live in an age of unprecedented changes and challenges. Global warming is accelerating at such a pace that it is difficult to comprehend all the outcomes and problems. It affects everything—the insects, the forests, the soils, and the declining arable land, while in some countries there are mountains of organic and inorganic wastes.

Simultaneously, human population is increasing with the survival of babies and of older people (I am one of them). Cities reach unimaginable sizes in population and architecture—

buildings of 80 stories are conceptually confronting.

By 2050, 60-79% of the world’s population will live in cities. More mass migration due to war and environmental decline is inevitable.

Technology fueled growth.

Consumption became synonymous with growth. For many, being rich was more prestigious

than being honest. You know this—you are permaculturists. First, evaluate how equipped you are with permaculture knowledge and skills. Then ask if permaculture can contribute to food security against the backdrop of such challenges?

What was missing in the UN definition of food security?

It succeeded in assisting monoculture to produce food— mainly staples—to feed a growing world. It failed when we look at the consequences, such as soil, water, and air pollution,

and its carbon footprint. Any definition tied to goals and objectives requires ethics and principles. There was no ethical framework around the UN statement. Unbridled capitalism moved in on food. And today, some crops are considered commodities on a futures market rather than as resources for human and animal populations.

Against this background, is the UN definition still appropriate? As permaculturists, I believe we must move to a bioregional approach. A bioregional focus can help put the control of resources back into the hands of people to make food security accountable and visible.

Permaculture is undergoing a ‘growth spurt.’ It is being recognized throughout whole societies as a discipline with much to offer this world of uncertainty. Permaculture has expanded knowledge skills and diversity. Areas of permaculture, once only a session in a course, are now whole bodies of knowledge and skills. Some of these are Dave Jacke’s work with food forests, and subsequent implementers are going further. Darren Doherty has created a discipline for agriculture with Regrarians and is taken seriously by the regenerative agriculture practitioners. Children in Permaculture, permaculture in schools, and community gardens are moving into the realms of science. Developments like these are unstoppable

and absolutely necessary to prepare for the unpredictable and to have food security in place locally before the crisis.

Farming in a clearing

On a smaller scale, there are numerous studies of designed sites that give the large food quantities that very small parcels of land can produce. The evidence is in that permaculture

can supply a considerable fraction of a family’s needs.

Many people, such as David Holmgren and others, note and weigh every item harvested from their gardens. David’s book, RetroSuburbia, is premised on an economy that uses all household waste as inputs for the next harvest. In this setting, swap, share, sell, store, process, and give fulfill the third ethic of permaculture. ‘Redistribute surplus to need” becomes operative.

The suburbs and city neighborhoods can become distributed kitchen gardens and food forests. It is time to measure cities and suburbs to discover what critical mass of active citizens can provide for the needs of their community. I suspect it isn’t a large percentage


Commercial organic kitchen gardens are undergoing a revolution. Using traditional crops, new parts of plants, small-scale appropriate technology, and sharing information on all aspects of their work, these permaculture farmers are providing reliable food for people who have no access to land. They are also dispensing with some of the backbreaking work. With crop diversity and careful timing, they are spreading risk.

Staples, being mostly annuals, have contributed substantially to land degradation and global warming. Growing staples for a bioregion using regenerative principles reverses the destruction. Positive impacts are evident in all natural systems such as forests, waterways, local climate buffering, and more consistent yields.

The challenge to permaculture has been always to supply staples. With bioregional planning, commercial farmland could be freed up, and home kitchen gardens could supply high yields from household waste and grey water.

For some, substitution of the five key grains is possible with permanent plants like nut trees. Others would revert to traditional staples according to their local climate, e.g., potatoes

in cooler climates.

But would permaculture be able to provide food security?

Coming from a systems approach, food security would have to be audited so that waste becomes valued. With effective and ethical food security, it is necessary to remove junk food from the calculation, and with it all the unnecessary packaging and transport. In this light, ice cream made thousands of miles away from soy or palm oil becomes embarrassing and undesirable.

Providing protein is easier than growing staples. In some tropical cities, rabbits, chicken, and quail are grown on balconies. With his usual prescience, Bill Mollison suggested that we abandon parking areas and floors in skyscraper towers, and replace them with small animal systems. As cities are now questioning the huge and indefensible amount of land handed over to parked cars, this is likely to happen in the future.

Cities are a huge question for food security. We know that a city holds food for only about three days, and fuel for perhaps less. So despite apparently full supermarket shelves, city populations live with the frightening risk of running out of food. Of course, governments fly in rations when there is a disaster. However, if there were multiple demands on government disaster services, life could quickly become precarious.When Bill Mollison wrote, “Bring food production back to the cities,” he could see from the 70s that the problems would multiply.

Skyscrapers present opportunities as well as challenges. We have the technology to turn whole floors into rainwater storage and grey water recycling. Whole aspects can be converted to green houses. Parking areas can become community farms and worm farms. They have enormous potential to present themselves as ‘organisms’ that manage their own water, waste, and food systems.

Sustainable Cities, Liveable Cities, and other such movements are rapidly developing strategies and techniques. Notably, Paris adopted permaculture and has all its planners and land managers working towards a food-secure city. It is building on some of its traditional approaches and using best practices and ideas. Other cities are following.

Some cities are becoming ‘city states,’ as their ethics and practices diverge from those of the wider nation. The is most evident in the US. Forward-thinking cities put food security near the top of their list for sustainability, together with potable water supplies. They buffer global warming with shade trees, green spaces, gardens, city farms, and air cleaning. Cities can sequester large amounts of CO2 through greening programs.

And so, with forests of all types, the permaculture principle to plant forests as both carbon sequestration and intergenerational equity can also function to protect soils and water so that food security is buffered against future disasters. The original concept of ‘farming in a clearing’ holds more now than when Mollison & Holmgren first used the term. Any sort of farm or food security land will be buffered and protected by a range of appropriate forests and hedges.

Finally, can we buffer global warming and provide global food security without using the reigning principles and ethics of permaculture? Is there any other framework or toolbox that gives humans an approach and means to create a living world which is presently under threat? I haven’t found anything yet. We need to start quickly in our communities. Δ

Rosemary Morrow is a permaculture educator, development worker, writer, and home gardener. Based in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, Rosemary is a Quaker who has worked in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Albania, and Vietnam and trained in

Australia as a teacher with permaculture analysis and design systems that lead to resilient land and townscapes. She is the author of the Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture as well as the Earth User’s Guide to Teaching Permaculture.

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