Feeding the Deindustrial Future

Ask people today what they think future generations will consider the 20th century’s most important legacy and you’ll likely get any number of answers – the Apollo moon landings, computer technology, the discovery of the genetic code, or what have you. Past ages, though, were notoriously bad judges of the relative importance of the legacies they’ve left to the future. In the Middle Ages, scholastic theology was thought to be the crowning achievement of the human mind, while the Gothic cathedrals, the spectacular technological advances chronicled by Jean Gimpel in in The Medieval Machine, and the English feudal laws that evolved into parliamentary government and trial by jury would have been considered minor matters if anybody thought of them at all. Today nobody outside the University of Chicago and a few conservative Catholic colleges pays the least attention to scholasticism, while Gothic architecture still shapes how we think of space and light, a good half of the machinery that surrounds us every day runs on principles evolved by the inventors of the clock and the windmill, and the political and legal systems of a majority of the world’s nations – including ours – come from that odd Saxon tribal custom, borrowed by Norman kings for their own convenience, of calling together a group of yeomen to discuss new laws or decide who committed a crime.

When it comes to the long-term value of a culture’s accomplishments, in other words, the future has the deciding vote. I don’t pretend to know for certain how that vote will be cast; you don’t get privileged access to knowledge about the future, I’m sorry to say, by being an archdruid. Still, I’m willing to risk a guess. A thousand, or two thousand, or ten thousand years from now, when people look back through the mists of time to the 20th century and talk about its achievements, the top of the list won’t be moon landings, computers, or the double helix, much less the political and cultural ephemera that occupy so much attention just now. If I’m right, it will be something much humbler – and much more important.

In the first decades of the 20th century, an English agronomist named Albert Howard working in India began experimenting with farming methods that focused on the health of the soil and its natural cycles. Much of his inspiration came from traditional farming practices in India, China and Japan that had maintained soil fertility for centuries or millennia. Howard fused their ideas with Western scientific agronomy and the results of his own experiments to create the first modern organic agriculture. Later researchers, notably Alan Chadwick in England and John Jeavons in America, combined Howard’s discoveries with methods of intensive gardening that had evolved in France not long before Howard began his work, and with the biodynamic system developed in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, to develop the current state of the art in organic intensive farming.

The result of their work is at least potentially a revolution in humanity’s relationship to the land and the biosphere as dramatic as the original agricultural revolution itself. To begin with, the new organic methods are astonishingly productive. Using them, it’s possible to grow a spare but adequate vegetarian diet for one person on 1000 square feet of soil. For those with math phobia, that’s a patch of dirt 20’ by 50’, about the size of a small urban backyard, 1/45 of a football field, or a bit less than 1/43 of an acre – not much, in other words. (If you find this hard to believe – I certainly did, before I did the research and started using these methods in my own gardens – the details and documentation are in David Duhon, One Circle (Willits, CA: Ecology Action, 1985) and John Freeman’s Survival Gardening (Rock Hill, SC: John’s Press, 1983), among other sources.) These yields require no fossil fuels, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and no soil additives other than compost made from vegetable waste and human manure. Hand tools powered by human muscle are the only technological requirements – and yet organic methods get yields per acre far beyond what you can get with tractors and pesticides.

What makes this even more astonishing is that these yields are sustainable over the very long term. The core concept of organic agriculture is that healthy soil makes a healthy garden. Instead of treating soil like a sponge that needs to be filled with chemical nutrients, the organic method sees it as an ecosystem that will provide everything plants need so long as it’s kept in balance. The insect pests and plant diseases that give conventional farmers so much trouble can be managed easily by fine-tuning the soil ecosystem, changing the timing and mix of plants, and introducing natural predators – name any organism you need to get rid of, and there’s something that wants to eat it for you. Where conventional farming depletes the soil, requiring heavier applications of fertilizer and pesticides every season, organic methods produce improved soil, increased yields, and decreased pest problems year after year.

The third factor that makes today’s organic methods revolutionary is that they’re portable. Many traditional cultures around the world have worked out farming methods that are sustainable over the long term, but nearly all of those depend on specific environmental conditions and plant varieties. The growing methods practiced in the New Guinea highlands, for example, are brilliantly adapted to their native ecosystem and produce impressive yields, but they only work when you’ve got the specific mix of food crops, weather and soil conditions, and ecological factors found where they evolved. Intensive organic farming, by contrast, was developed simultaneously in the very different ecosystems of England and California, and has been put to use successfully in temperate, semiarid, and semitropical environments around the world. Like everything natural, it has its limits, but some 80% of the world’s population lives in areas where it can be practiced.

So why isn’t this front page news? There are plenty of reasons. To begin with, organic intensive methods aren’t suited to cash crops – you have to grow a mix of different, mutually supporting plants, rather than a single crop that can be sold in bulk to wholesalers – and the diet you can get from 1000 square feet of organic garden is high on sweet potatoes and soybeans but low on the sort of food Americans prefer to eat. More broadly, a society that measures all human values in terms of the abstract social game called money is very poorly equipped to make room for a means of subsistence that fills human needs but doesn’t do well at generating profits. Still, as the fictive economy winds down in the aftermath of the industrial age and modern chemical agriculture has to contend with the loss of its fossil fuel resource base, organic farming is one of the few ways we’ll be able to keep people fed. If enough people learn how to do it and start practicing it now, while there’s time to go through the learning curve, that is.