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Permaculture Can Feed the Planet

b2ap3_thumbnail_harvest1_sm.jpgThe human population has passed the 7 billion mark. When I was in high school I took a class with the alarming title of World Problems. Population was one of the highlighted issues, and I could feel the pressure of 4 million people pressing on my Pagan soul and sucking up the planet’s resources. Some of my darkest nightmares revolved around that dreadful movie about pollution and overpopulation that schools were all showing in the 70s.

I have heard it expressed from both the left and the right that some sort of population collapse event is inevitable. I think we feel this way in part because we cannot imagine how all those people will be fed, and what kind of world we will have in the process. Scary as it is, I believe there is hope for us. This is not just blind faith in the goodness of the Universe. In the course of learning about sustainable, permaculture style food systems, I have come across some remarkable pieces of information.

The first is that mixed use, biodynamic farms and other permaculture style integrated farming systems, produce more food per acre than conventional farms. A lot more. In Asia, combining fish production with livestock and vegetable production increased fish output 2 to 3.9 times. David Blume in his 2 acre Silicon Valley mini farm, produced 8 times the amount of food per acrethat the USDA claimed was possible. Blume lays out the math.

With a polyculture, yields of 3-10 pounds of food per square foot are easy to come up with in most climates. For comparison, commercial agriculture in California , which is way inefficient, routinely runs about 1.5-2.5 pounds per square foot per year across a wide variety of crops. People need to eat about two pounds of mixed food a day if active, or around 750 pounds a year. In a good but somewhat sloppy design, you need about 500 square feet per person MAXIMUM. In a very good design, 200 square feet will do the job. If your diet is heavy on grain you'll need more space but not an astronomical amount. Utilize a greenhouse to extend seasons and exchange air rich in carbon dioxide from chicken houses or human houses, which otherwise would go to waste, and yields ratchet up even more. Take a little more space and include ducks and aquaculture into the mix and the yields become quite diverse and substantial. This sort of system is typical in Vietnam now and there is no longer any measurable hunger there. Wouldn't it be nice if the US could do that with its "superior" first world agricultural system?

And not just more food, but food that is more nutritious, better for the environment, and humane. Blume’s farm was productive even among organic farmers and was regularly in the top 15 percent. He rarely used any pesticides, even organic ones. Joel Salatin runs a biodynamic farm in Virginia. He uses experimentation and observation to create layered food inputs. The same space is made to produce as much as possible. After he runs cattle over a particular patch of ground, a few days later, he sends in the chickens to spread out the manure and eat the parasites that would otherwise be a serious problem for the cattle. He produces yearly on his small farm:

  • 30,000 dozen eggs
  • 10,000 broilers
  • 800 stewing hens
  • 25,000 lbs of beef
  • 25,000 lbs of pork
  • 1000 turkeys
  • 500 rabbits

When animal inputs are mixed with gardens, the soil fertility increases and plants grow bigger and healthier. Nitrogen inputs become unnecessary, and healthier plants are less susceptible to insects and diseases. And livestock gets to live they way they evolved to; strolling around pastures, eating grass.

Second, with the application of swale agriculture, it is possible to grow crops in drylands where farming is difficult and the soil tends to get contaminated with salt. The short film Greening the Desert Geoff Lawson goes to the middle east and finds a salt contaminated piece of land in the desert and grows food there, even decontaminating the soil, something generally considered to be impossible without massive flushing with fresh water. The Permaculture techniques demonstrated in this video are not a matter of great expense, but of human creativity, observation, and understanding. In the Deccan desertin India, permaculture principles have been taught to small farmers with the goal of feeding a family of five to provide maximum food/fodder, and reclaim the desert.

Third, while only a small percentage of land on the planet is suitable for farming via conventional methods, there are vast tracks of grassland that could support rotational grazers. Such grazing increases the health of both the land and the animals on it. Allan Savory, an ecologist from southern Africa, discovered that dry and abused grasslands can become healthy and green when consistent and well-timed grazing from large animals practiced. Well-managed grasslands sequester more carbon than forests, reduce or eliminate erosion, hold more water than conventionally farmed fields, and reduce fire danger. All of these things add up to a better life for the entire planet and her residents.

7 billion people does mean a greater demand of resources, but it also means a greater pool of creativity and ingenuity. In high school I could not have imagined feeling hopeful about the future of humanity’s nearly 5 billion people. But now, at 7 billion, I find myself optimistic.

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Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.


  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Saturday, 19 October 2013

    Thank you for this - I too have moved into a place of optimism for much of the same reasons.

  • Soli
    Soli Thursday, 31 October 2013

    How fortunate you are that you were able to attend this! Salatin's farm should be put up as an example to everyone who considers producing food in America. His techniques rebuild the soil and make the land even MORE fertile. We're too cut off from the land to understand the realities of farming and I hope for permaculture and biodynamic techniques to become commonplace.
    Hel, I also want to see people get rid of their huge swaths of lawn and either grow something edible there or at least plant something not so dependent on water.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Friday, 01 November 2013

    The Russian people have a long tradition of food not lawns. It is both sustainable and practical in that it provides food security.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Friday, 01 November 2013

    It is my hope that Pagans will help to lead this charge. Our love of the land is a natural match for permaculture, and other techniques that work with Nature. 1% of our population are farmers, if only 10% took up integrative food production, we would have plenty for everyone in a way that would heal the Earth instead of hurting her.

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