David Holmgren speaks with GPM's Julian Darley (transcript)

MediaDavid Holmgren speaks with GPM's Julian Darley


Growing your own food is a political act because it contasts with the way most people get their food which is through huge food supply chains that basically involve earth destroying practices. Especially when we're talking about perishable food: Fresh fruit and vegetables, small livestock products like eggs, and meat from chickens. This type of food uses far more embodied energy through pesticides, through fertilizers and transport miles (transport miles often in refridgerated trucks), much higher wastage because of the perishable nature. The requirements for cosmetically perfect food means there's huge wastage. So this end of the food production system compared with the production of staple grains which people are less likely to grow in gardens. So recognising that that perishable food is enormously destructive in the way it's produced, when we grow it in the garden we bypass virtually all of those systems. And at the same time we are becoming, to a degree, autonomous. And political independence and the ability to engage in society in a lot of ways is to do with from what position of autonomy do we stand. And if we stand totally dependent on a one or two or three day food supply chain we don't really have any position of political autonomy. So I think there's many different ways. The other way we can see it is that a lot of the supply of the food we can grow in the garden is also grown in ways that exploits other people. So we're also disconnecting from systems of unjust exploitation of other people.


I see soil as the foundation of future human wellbeing. As the evidence of history suggests that civilisations in a lot of ways have gone down most commonly, most importantly, because of the degradation of soil. Some of that is due to gross loss of soil through erosion and we certainly have those processes continuing in our farmlands. And that's of course another important reason for gardening because gardening is generally a soil maintaining and building process, but there's also very important issues in relation to soil mineral balance and people's health, and this is not... it's sort of understood as a sort of generalised given statement, but it's not well understood in the medical profession and the nutritional status of foods is a very contentious area where we can have foods that appear to be reasonably healthy plants and vary in their mineral nutrient contents by two orders of magnitude.

Now the plant can actually sort of cope with this, but animals, especially animals at the end of the food chain like human omnivores with large brains have this very fine tolerance for lack of minerals. And to some extent our current food production systems that bring food from many many different places, many many different soil types, in spite of the degredation of soil and bad soil management practices and declining mineral content in food, we're getting a mix of imbalances as a result of that process, and one of the hazards of localisation of food supplies, which must be faced, is that we will tend to, again, like in the past, get a particular sweep of mineral imbalances which, historically, in quite recent times, used to show up in things like thyroid problems in areas that were deficient in iodene and these types of things.

So trying to not just maintain soil fertility, but to build both higher fertility and balance of mineral nutrients is incredibly important. The processes for doing this are, on the one hand very simple at a garden level. At a farming scale they are much more complex, but they are also still the greatest mysteries in science.

There's huge contraversy and debate about what is the best way to do this in any particular circumstance and I think we've got a situation where a lot of the conventional approaches to plant nutrition that have been sold through agricultural science teaching are gradually being discarded without the acknowledgement that they were actually technically flawed. But what is replacing them in terms of organic methods and the scientific foundation behind those is not a clear simple picture. And the success of a particular organic farmer in improving and maintaining soil fertility doesn't necessarily translate to another situation. So it's in some ways a difficult message to give about the importance of soil because there's not necessarily a simple recipe.

We do know that returning all plant and animal wastes to the soil, and allowing soil life to thrive, the microbes of both fungal-based microbes and bacterial-based and that a balance between these is a huge part of healthy soils. And that we know also that return of organic matter is critical to the structural health of soils. Soil that is fluffy and soft and elevated, that if we walk on it that it's like a matress sinking under our feet, rather than concrete. So a lot of the properties of soil that lead to healthy plants are actually to do with these physical properties, but these physical properties are completely intertwined with both the chemistry and the biology.

In many cases, some of what used to be our best agricultural soils are still at a state where they are relatively high in fertility, but that fertility is unbalanced and the life in the soil is almost gone, so we almost have a dead situation. But sometimes just allowing rotations of pasture or plant materials to just mulch onto the soil, the cessation of cultivation, resting, fallowing its land, often results in an amazing revival. So there's both cases where we can "let nature happen", give it a rest, and it actualy recovers, but at the other end of the spectrum we have places where the underlying geology is a constraint on what nature can do, and those are the sort of places that people were always were low population density, where people tended to be graziers and pasturalists and forest farmers, not farmers of intensive arable cultivation, and where there was a need to eat many different foods and particularly animal foods to get the balance of mineral nutrition and in some of these environments, with modern understandings, with mineral supplements, with trace elements we can sometimes potentially overcome those limits. But there's always this tension in soil husbandry between the idea of: "let nature do its job" and "give nature the mineral material to allow it to lift to a new height" and I don't think we've resolved that one in a simple way, but it's where we have to put our focus, is the soil.


Our food habits, I suppose, are as unsustainable as our food production systems. And it could be argued that they are actually more the driver to the unsustainability of agriculture than what is happening at the production end.

Most dramatically is the demand for constant steady supply of out of season fresh produce, because this requires enormous manipulation of the growing environment through greenhouses and other methods, and most particularly long distance transport, including between northern and southern hemisphere flips because of course the southern hemisphere is producing in opposite sync to the northern hemisphere. So these complimentarities between different regions of course existed in the past in areas of high mountain regions where foods grown up the mountains could be brought down to cities very close that effectively were in a different climate zone, but of course now we have this global system to do this and it's really in my lifetime that that has largely come about. So although we've had an industrialised society for many generations, we've only really had this industrially mediated perishable food supply system for really one generation.

But there's other elements going back... More generations are being used to eating more highly processed carbohydrates, concentrated sugars, all sorts of things that we're well aware of that have health limitations, but those agricultural industries that supply that have become these vast destructive monocultures that need to produce more wheat in the world and more sugar and more rice, when in fact, in the past, take rice for example, in Japan, in the past people ate millet, sorghum, buckwheat, and other grains which were better for health than just eating rice, but also would grow on other types of land. And there's complimentarity, and there's a revival, a movement to revive these grains as part of the organic living permaculture.

But this redesign of our food habits is quite a challenging one because it doesn't really work very well by trying to do it through moral imperitive. Or if it's done under forced circumstances people have a strong negative memory of those things. We know in Australia about older people not wanting to eat rabbit, because they remember it as the food that they ate during the great depression. Sometimes these associations with certain food as a result of these terrible experiences, what we need to do is, to the extent possible, is to change these food habits ahead of the necessity and seeing these things as actually positive. And in a lot of ways, what is desirable food, what is positive and what's negative is a completely culturally mediated psycho-social process. It's like with fermented foods. What is an acceptable fermented food and what is a bad food is actually not something that can be scientifically said: Yes, that's good to eat and that's not. And that will vary in the cultural context.

So humans are extraordinarily adaptable in this realm and we've obviously adapted to an industrial diet very easily, but it is more difficult to go to the supermart where there might be 25,000 food items, even if a huge proportion of them are produced from the same industrial ingredients, to a food garden or local sources of supply where there's actually a lot less. So I say with some irony that the garden of Eden doesn't really stack up very well compared to the supermart, but I also say as someone who lives from food gardens that we don't produce all our own food, but we don't buy any fruit and vegetables, that that living with the seasons is extraordinarily special process. To have the first strawberry of the season, the first tomatoe, is special in a way that's not possible if you've bought two tomatoes from the supermart each week. So by something being seasonally scarce it's actually raising the special nature of it.

Similarly we don't regard things that come from some distance as necessarily something that we would completely avoid. Like where we live we are in a temperate climate and we don't grow coffee, but we regard organic coffee which comes to us from northern New South Wales, from 2000kms away, as a special thing. So there's nothing wrong with the idea of desirability in some special rare high cost thing as long as it's celebrated as a luxury thing and doesn't degenerate into a constant need. And of course, beyond constant need to an addictive necessity. And a lot of our food habits are really at that level of addictive necessity.

Some of the processes certainly we can learn a lot from the issues of pharmacological addiction. The drug metaphor, both in our food and other habits, is a very powerful one to understand behaviour. Like, people joke about being addicted to shopping or addicted to television, but they often don't think these addictions are really serious addictions. But if we took a pharmacological approach we could say, well, to see how serious the addiction is one needs to withdraw the supply and see what behaviour follows. And that's the test of how severe an addiction is. So whether it's to some regular intake of highly varied out of seasonal food, or whether it's the process of actually going shopping, or some other behaviour, in society, if everyone is doing this all the time a veil of normality hangs around these things and the mutual agreement between the addicts is that everything is okay. But of course we can only test that by what is our behaviour when those things are not available.


The use of oil and seeing it as an addictive process, at the personal level and the societal level, I think is a very useful one. And it does also give some insight into perhaps why society didn't do somehting about this issue earlier than we are seeing now, maybe, with the actual peaking of supply. And I would put that in the historical context of the wave of the environmental thinking which gave rise to permaculture in the 1970's.

To some extent the seminal work was really the Club of Rome's limits to growth report in 1972, which perhaps would not have been so influential inspite of its eminent authors and great publicity around it at the time, but would not be so influential if it wasn't for it following the first oil crisis of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 which really almost, like, illustrated the sensitivity of society to oil prices and supply.

And then the second oil shock in 1979, which came a year after Permaculture One was published. So this context in the mid 1970's was one where there was this huge interest in sustainable alternatives, in passive solar design, in energy efficiency, in bicycling and public transport, in new ways of communal living, are many things that in some ways are regarded as part of alternative living "hippy" ideas that didn't really go anywhere.

And this sort of rewriting of history is actually part of the 1980's shift where in fact this idea of resource limits, which was proposed in the Club of Rome's limits to growth report and was illustrated by these, admittedly, politically-created energy crises seemed to go away, but permaculture from the beginning was really based on this view that we really have to redevelop systems of dependence on renewable resourses and primarily the renewable resources of soil, plants and animals with renewable technologies providing a complimentary role rather than the primary role.

Now, I suppose, inevitably some of this can be classed as a romantic return to the past but it was really a very serious design system for this energy change. Now since that time during the 80's and the 90's a lot of permaculture activism has inevitably worked within a social context where food has been the cheapest it has been in human history relative to wages, electricity and fuel costs have in many cases fallen relative to real wages, so many of the other reasons for permaculture strategies like community gardens and city farms, to take one example, it was the social values and other environmental values that became the points of arguing for or proposing these things rather than food security. So permaculture, like a lot of other environmental strategies has had to work within this environment where the really fundamental, if you like, "survival reasons" for doing some of these things didn't really seem to have any credibility.

Now that's not been the case in the third world where permaculture projects are arguably much more effective and large scale and more predominant than in the rich world are. One example I give is the very "cool" permaculture idea of creating a living fence. Actually an old idea that existed in the layed hedge rows of England of using plants as a barrier to animals. Well, we have a ready supply of steel and fencing materials actually this is really quite complicated and time consuming, but in an African village if cows eat every blade of grass and there's nowhere food can be grown and someone brings in some plant material which a living fence can be grown by putting stakes of wood in the groung, then this is a breakthrough technology of enormous significance. But in a world where fencing materials are abundant, why bother with something like a living fence, so there's many of the permaculture strategies are laboured in this condition where it hasn't been necessary to do these things.

And that's been the issue of "why grow your own food?" when food is the cheapest it's been in history relative to wages, but that's perhaps why in the struggle to try and find what are some of the solutions to the oil peak and decline that, in a way, some of those permaculture strategies are directly designed for that.


This problem of how the reduction in energy will play out especially in relation to food supply is enormously complex and it's one I've thought about for almost thirty years, and constantly new information, new insights add bits to that picutre, but I think inherently we are dealing with unpredictable systems. Not just because we don't have enough information about what is going on, we are dealing with points of chaotic change and mergents of new possibilities and the backwash of environmental, social, psycho-social debt, if you like, which we've pushed away with the power of energy and resource use. We've pushed these problems away and these problems are coming back that have been accumulating. And we don't know exactly how those are going to play out. I mentioned before about the whole issue of health and our fragility in terms of mineral supply and mineral nutrition and our concerns abut health that can feedback very quickly if there's interruption in the food supply chain.

Perhaps one of the main things is the dependence on gas for the making of fertilisers, especially nitrogen fertilizer and I think people who don't understand agriculture... Trying to understand the power of taking nitrogen gas out of the air, which of couse is enormously abundant, but virtually inert and breaking it and reforming it to form the basic chemicals which provide nitrogen fertilisers, that this is enormously energy intensive. And it's a huge part of the productivity of modern agriculture is linked to this. So I think that's one of the obvious issues that's going to play out, which will certainly lead to rises in the costs of these things.

Some of the positive things that can come from that is the low input and organic ways of farming for the first time start to become competitive, not because there's a premium for organic produce, but because of the lower exposure to input costs. So that the more self-reliant the farm is in its own fertility cycle the more it is able to continue producing at a lower cost structure in a world of greater energy costs. The other factor of course is the localisation of what I mentioned before where home food gardening disconnects this chain of supply. So that means locally produced food, again, has a competitive advantage against large scale global supply. So some of the things that have been extremely difficult in the past thirty years to argue in terms of reform of agriculture and food supply along ecological lines actually may happen without anyone even thinking it's a good idea. So there's an enormous number of positives that can come from this process, but I think it's unlikely to be a smooth transition even in the best of circumstances and I think it's inevitable that people will look back on the time where they could just go down to the shop and get this huge list of things of whatever they chose, but I suppose there's also what I spoke about: the joy of reconnecting with a local and seasonal food supply that could become more positive outcomes.

I think on the dark-side if we look on a large scale it's hard not to be pessimistic about: Are we going to see the world's grain supply which is dependent, and in the immediate term will continue to be dependent, on fossil fuel to plough land as an absolute minimum, if not supply nitrogen fertiliser. But the supply of the world's grain from large scale agricultural surplus of that to export, is that going to go to feed people or is that going to go into these hideous systems of intensive livestock husbandry of feedlot beef production? And I think we could see a repeat perhaps of the Irish famine story where the Irish were exporting shiploads of food to Britain while people in Ireland were starving after the onset of the potato blight. So the possibility of human quality food in grain, especially sort of wheat and corn and other oil seeds could be fed to intensive livestock systems, which we know is an incredible waste of resources, it's an obscen use of resources, at the same time these countries don't have enough grain to feed their people. Now I would hope that in a world market of rising prices that those countries would be able to outbid the corporations wanting a grain supply to feed to a cow to make hamburgers, but I don't think that's particularly clear how that will play out. It doesn't seem to appear that we can rely on sensible and humane public policy to effectively shut down these industries now because they... I mean I don't think they can be effectively reformed, I mean they are founded on fundamentally false premises, so, of course this doesn't mean that meat production is not a sustainable part of the land use in the future, but of course animals need to be raised on natural pasture with low inputs and those inputs need to be reserved for the arable land producing food, staples and oil seeds, for people.

MediaDavid Holmgren speaks with GPM's Julian Darley