The breakdown of our food growing systems poses one of the biggest threats to our survival. Our existence depends upon our agricultural systems, but what do our agricultural systems depend on? The answer: water, air and soil. These basic elements support all life-forms and without them, life as we know it cannot be sustained.
In nature, food grows as part of an ecosystem. An ecosystem is an ecological system that is made up of many biological parts, or components, that all interact with one another. These components are mostly made up of organisms such as plants and animals. They feed on each other and depend on each others' presence to survive.
Just as plant and animal components are dependent on each other, basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – are also dependent on each another. For example, the flow of air affects rainfall and rainfall affects the flow of air. In addition, life-supporting systems are dependent on the components and vice versa. For example, soil is created by plants and plants are created by soil. In summary, components are dependent on life-supporting systems and the life-supporting systems are dependent on components. However, it gets even more complicated than that.
Within the basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – there are sub-systems. If we take a look at water, it can be broken up into many sub-systems, including: rainfall, surface water, ground water, humidity and transpiration. It is not necessary (or even possible) to understand everything that's going on within an ecosystem, however it is very important to understand this:
Each and every component, system and sub-system is important in running the overall ecosystem. When you disturb one, the others start to fall apart.
Humans once lived as part of ecosystems. We were just one of many ecological components within an ecosystem. We were also part of the food chain; sometimes preyed upon, but mostly a predator. When we discovered cultivation we discovered many advantages, such as being able to grow staple crops in relative density. By clearing an area of its natural components we have been able to increase the quantity of a single, useful component such as a commercial crop.
A typical farming operation strives to eliminate as many ecological components as possible so that a predetermined yield of a specific crop can be obtained. For example, a farmer sows 10 acres of wheat and expects to achieve a yield within a certain range. If it's a good year he will achieve the upper end of the range and if it's a bad year he will achieve the lower end of the range. This offers him a relatively secure livelihood and he can live his life in accordance to the money he makes from his predetermined yield. It makes perfect sense from an economic point of view.
However, this only works when the basic life-supporting systems are working, hence, adequate water, air and soil. The problem is that these basic systems are part of an ancient ecosystem that is long gone. The soils that we now grow crops in were part of a natural ecosystem and the millions of components that once existed were a critical part of keeping the basic life-supporting systems healthy and functioning.
By stripping the land of natural components we start to see the degradation of the basic life-supporting systems – water, soil and air. When a large number of living components are removed, these natural systems break down because the components and the systems are interrelated. As a diversity of plants and animals are replaced with a single species of crop, we start to see effects on the way the basic water, air and soil systems operate. Water moves faster and is not filtered by a variety of plants. This usually lowers the ground water and leaves the surface hotter and drier. The hotter surface moves the air in different ways causing rain clouds to travel away from the area causing localized drought conditions. Overall fertility is lost from soils as water moves out of the system at a greater rate. The temperatures are hotter in summer and colder in winter as there are fewer plants to thermoregulate the area. Rainfall becomes more unpredictable as the air current is affected by hotter ground temperatures. It eventually gets difficult to grow the commercial crop.
Modern-day human intervention can offer short-term solutions, but cannot fix the cause of the problem. Irrigation from bores cannot provide a sustainable solution to the breakdown of the water system. Irrigation only lowers the ground water further making the problem even bigger than it was. The use of groundwater is not a bad practice in all cases, but it doesn't fix the root problem. Likewise, inorganic fertilizers will not repair the soil systems. If a soil is being leached of nutrients due to water passing through it too quickly and hungry hybrid crops feeding on it, it will not be repaired by adding more minerals. The same forces that are depleting the soils are still happening, so the soils will continue to become depleted. Inorganic fertilizers cannot restore soil structure and cannot build new soil, like a natural ecosystem can.
Commonsense will tell you that if there are no natural soil-building systems in place and soils are being lost and degraded, then fertilizer dependence must increase. Year after year more fertilizer will be needed to obtain the same yield. Remember, the farmer depends on a predetermined yield to fulfill his lifestyle, but now there is a greater cost to maintain that yield, in the form of store-bought fertilizers. As costs increase, net profits decrease and eventually the whole operation becomes economically nonviable. When you add market instability and retail competitiveness to the equation, you can see how difficult it would be to survive as a farmer. The solution, so far, has been to cut the amount of human labor on farms because they are the most expensive part of the operation. This is done by increasing the size of the operation and the equipment. Large conglomerate companies can grow crops over thousands of acres, tended by very few humans. In ecological terms, this means less diversity over a larger area, which means less natural components and less natural systems in operation. Of course, the result is that the basic life-supporting systems; water, air and soil, will be ruined at a quicker rate. Surely that means that even these massive operations will eventually become too costly to run.
The only way to keep an ecosystem alive and healthy is to make sure the basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – are intact. This applies to any patch of land, whether it's a native forest, a farm or an urban garden. Every ecosystem is just a smaller part of a larger ecosystem. In fact, the whole planet could be referred to as a single ecosystem. What we do on a local level may only cause a tiny effect, but if a significant number of local people start doing the same thing, then it will cause an effect on a slightly larger scale. If this is replicated on a big enough scale, then eventually, our actions can affect an entire planet.
There is no buffer that can protect you from the global breakdown of the basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil. However, you can cause an effect on your immediate surroundings. To restore our basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – we need to increase the number and diversity of biological components. Diversity is the answer. Remember, an ecosystem has millions of components, systems and sub-systems operating in a given area. These systems need each other for their survival. We can add diversity to our backyards and farms in the form of plants and animals. Once we start to add biological components, they will start to support more biological components. The addition of biological components, in the form of plants and animals, will start to build soil. This in turn will slow down the flow of water and keep it in our property. Trees and other plants will reduce and capture water lost from ground evaporation, mulch soils and create niche spaces for more life-forms. Your property will be better regulated in terms of temperature and humidity. It will be cooler in summer and warmer in winter. This, in turn, helps the plants to yield more, creating more biomass and better soil. There will be more opportunities for life forms and the basic life-supporting systems; water, air and soil will be more supportive and better able to meet your needs. As these basic systems become healthier, more sub-systems will appear. Systems within systems will start to rev up and biological components (plants and animals) will increase in number, diversity and health.
To give you an idea of how this may look in real terms, imagine this; a backyard that had a massive number of edible and non-edible plants of differing size, shape, habit, colour and form. Also, imagine a diversity of domestic and wild animals, native and introduced, edible and non-edible. Now, try to imagine a system where these plants and animals coexist in a way that they fed each other and, at the same time, create surplus food for humans.
Using a mixture of edible and non-edible plants is important. Not everything within the system should be directly consumed by humans. Non-edible plants create the structure that supports the edible species. They should be planted in sensitive areas such as hilltops and drainage lines and in strips along contours on slopes. They act as water filters, native habitats, climate controllers and soil builders. Edible plants fill in the spaces only after the basic supporting structure is in place.
Ecosystems are in a constant state of change and so are sustainable food growing systems. This makes it very difficult to predetermine the yield from year to year. The system needs the freedom to change as the components and systems evolve. This is the most difficult part for humans to understand. In our current way of farming we strive to make each year the same so that the yield can be predetermined, even when the conditions are changing. Sustainable agriculture calls for a massive faith in natural laws and absolute respect for the basic life-supporting systems.
I have seen many agricultural systems, but very few sustainable ones. I have even seen several organically-certified farms that are practicing agriculture in a way that is depleting the basic life-supporting systems; soil, air and water. Rather than buying inorganic fertilizers, they simply purchase organic fertilizers. These organic farmers have little understanding of natural systems and just operate in a similar way to traditional farmers, only their job is more difficult without the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. The food they produce may be free of chemicals, but they are slowly killing the basic life-supporting systems; water, air and soil.
To make the world a healthier place is not difficult. Even if you don't get the design as perfect as you possibly could, just the addition of a diversity of plants will create a positive effect on the basic life-supporting systems. However, if you can get the components arranged in a way that they feed off one another to create a cyclic flow of energy, then you are starting to mimic a natural ecosystem. As the site matures, the basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – will start to be restored. That is when the system becomes self-sufficient and will provide excess food for humans, with minimal effort. In fact, at that point, we will have returned to the past and, once again, be just another ecological component within an ecosystem.